ORONO, Maine — It wasn’t easy.
But a resilient University of Maine women’s basketball team overcame an early 12-point deficit to beat Albany 66-51 in an America East semifinal in front of a raucous Memorial Gymnasium crowd of 1,233 on Sunday afternoon.
UMaine’s 13th straight win sends the top-seeded Black Bears (24-7) into Friday’s 5 p.m. championship game against 23-9 Hartford, the second seed, at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
Sunday’s semifinal was played in Orono because of a scheduling conflict as the Professional Bull Riders Velocity Tour was taking pace at the CIC.
The Great Danes silenced the energetic crowd by taking a 17-5 lead courtesy of a 15-2 spurt and they led 19-9 after the first quarter.
But the Black Bears clawed their way back into the game with an 18-5 run in the second period initiated by a rare four-point play by Parise Rossignol, who was fouled while nailing a 3-pointer.
The Great Danes also picked up their fifth foul of the quarter with 6:05 remaining and that meant UMaine would be shooting two free throws the rest of the half and UMaine made them play by going 9-for-9 from the foul line.
The Black Bears took a 34-32 lead into the intermission.
“That killed us. We were fouling them 90 feet from the basket and that gave them momentum,” said Albany coach Colleen Mullen.
UMaine used a 12-2 flurry in the the third quarter to turn a two-point deficit into a 46-38 lead entering the final period.
Albany stayed within striking distance but Van Buren’s Rossignol, who had shot just 2-for-24 from the floor in her three previous games, nailed a crucial 3-pointer off a Tanesha Sutton pass with 2:34 remaining to extend UMaine’s lead to 10.
Dor Saar’s six free throws iced it.
“Shooters have to have a short memory,” said Rossignol. “Whether I’m 20-for-30 or 3-for-30, if I’m open, I’m going to shoot it. I haven’t been shooting the ball great lately but I’ve put a ton of work in and I’m still confident.”
UMaine went 24-for-26 from the free throw line in the game (93.3 percent) and outrebounded Albany 41-35 including a 14-7 edge on the offensive glass.
“The free throws really helped us especially since we didn’t have a great shooting percentage (from the floor),” said Sutton, who went 9-for-10 from the free throw line.
“You would have thought we would have shot better because we practice here every day but you have to give Albany credit. They played us tough,” said Maine coach Amy Vachon whose Black Bears shot 30.5 percent from the floor including 28.6 percent beyond the 3-point arc.
“We didn’t shoot the ball great but we battled back. Our team played real hard and made the plays we needed to down the stretch. I’m very proud of them. And the crowd was amazing,” she added.
“That’s the best player-to-player defense we’ve played all year,” said Mullen. “I’m really proud of how far our team has come and how they competed today. Maine is a well-balanced team.”
Even though UMaine shot poorly from the floor, the Black Bears made clutch shots when they had to.
Albany shot 37.7 percent from the floor, 25 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and 72.7 percent from the foul line as the Great Danes were 8-for-11 at the free throw stripe.
“Maine has a lot of threats. They have good guard play and we weren’t able to keep them off the (offensive) glass. Those offensive rebounds turned into baskets and momentum changes,” said Mullen.
Sutton scored 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds to lead UMaine. She also doled out four assists.
Saar and Millan tallied 16 points each. Saar provided five assists and two steals along with four rebounds. Millan posted seven rebounds and three steals. Rossignol added nine points and Fanny Wadling grabbed six rebounds as did Maeve Carroll.
Kyara Frames had 20 points and five rebounds for Albany and Heather Forster produced 19 points and seven rebounds. Alexi Schecter and Amanda Kantzy had six rebounds apiece to go with five and three points, respectively.
“Tanesha Sutton is a great player,” said Albany senior forward Forster. “She’s constantly working hard to get offensive rebounds. She reads them so well. And it’s hard to box out someone who crashed the boards from outside.”
The 5-foot-10 Sutton scored several of her points off drives to the basket, using her superior quickness to overcome Albany’s height advantage.
The 6-foot-2 Forster had 15 points in the first half but UMaine double-teamed her and the other post players in the second half and the Black Bears held her to four points.
“They were really beating us down low in the first half but our (players) did a great job making the adjustment,” said Vachon.
Rossignol said the Black Bears knew it was important to keep their composure when they were down.
“It’s the playoffs. If you lose, you’re done,’ said Rossignol. “We had to put together a run, starting with a stop and a basket. We didn’t panic. We kept fighting.”