With eight minutes left in the third period of Friday’s America East championship game against Hartford, the University of Maine women’s basketball held a tenuous two-point lead. The Hawks had rattled off a 15-3 run spanning the second and third periods.
But senior forward Tanesha Sutton sandwiched two conventional three-point plays around a 3-pointer by Blanca Millan as the Black Bears expanded the lead to 11 on their way to a 68-48 victory at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
Top seed UMaine (25-7), energized by a vociferous throng of 3,234, claimed its second straight conference title and posted its 14th consecutive win.
The conference regular-season and tournament champs advance to the NCAA tournament and will find out their opponent during Monday’s 7 p.m. selection show.
Hartford, the No. 2 seed, wound up 23-10 after having its seven-game winning streak snapped. The Hawks will play in the WNIT, a spot accorded to the America East runner-up.
Junior guard Blanca Millan earned her second straight tournament Most Outstanding Player award thanks to her 17 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals.
Parise Rossignol of Van Buren tossed in 15 points on five 3-pointers. Sutton contributed 12 points and nine rebounds, including a game-high five offensive boards, and Fanny Wadling chipped in with 10 points, 11 rebounds and six assists along with two assists and two steals. Dor Saar added nine points and seven assists.
Sierra DaCosta and Ella Awobajo (seven rebounds) netted 18 points each to pace the Hawks.
Millan was joined on the all-tourney team by Saar, Sutton, DaCosta and Stony Brook’s India Pagan.
Sutton, who was held scoreless in the first half, began the game-changing 9-0 run by grabbing a Millan miss and converting while being fouled. Her free throw made it 35-30 with 7:58 left in the third period.
After a Hartford miss, Saar pulled down the rebound and found an open Millan in the corner for a 3-pointer. Following another Hartford miss, Millan missed a 3-pointer but again Sutton grabbed the rebound, laid the ball in and was fouled.
“My teammates kept telling me to keep attacking, keep attacking,” said Sutton. “That’s what I was doing. I was looking for opportunities to get rebounds and stuff like that and looking to finish.”
“(Sutton) played like a senior who wasn’t ready to be done,” said Hartford coach Kim McNeill. “We allowed her to get too many offensive boards. We didn’t keep her off the boards. She’s a warrior.”
The gritty Hawks got within seven and trailed 46-38 but Millan stole the ball and passed to Rossignol for a 3-pointer with 47 seconds left in the third quarter and Sutton took the ball to the basket and hit a five-foot jumper at the horn to push the lead to 51-38.
“We knew they were going to make a run,” said Saar. “After halftime, we knew we had to come out hard, be aggressive and play our game.”
UMaine sewed up the win with an 8-0 run early in the fourth quarter as a Wadling layup was followed by 3-pointers from Rossignol and Millan.
“We played a real good defensive game,” said UMaine head coach Amy Vachon. “The kids did a good job making them take shots they weren’t comfortable with.”
Hartford shot 36.7 percent from the floor and leading scorer and first team All-America East guard Lindsey Abed was held to five points. Abed was averaging 14.9 points and Hartford was averaging 64.5 ppg.
“We got a little flustered but we showed composure [in the second half]. The crowd was awesome once again,” Vachon added.
“It’s a really, really tough environment to play in,” said DaCosta. “We should have done a better job staying together and tuning the crowd out. At points in the game, we made silly mistakes. We turned the ball over and made mistakes we usually don’t make.”
Maine scored the game’s first 10 points and never trailed.
“That was really important because Albany got up on us (by 12 points in the semifinals),” Sutton said. “We wanted to come in here, get momentum and play great defense and we did that.”
Two Rossignol 3-pointers triggered the flurry.
She went into the game in a slump, shooting only 12.9 percent (4-for-31) over her previous four games.
“I hadn’t been shooting the ball that great lately but my teammates showed confidence in me and I put in the work, too,” said Rossignol. “I’m confident that I’m a good shooter and hitting my first two shots definitely helped me.”
UMaine outscored Hartford 18-6 off turnovers, held a 24-14 scoring edge in the paint and took a 15-4 on second-chance points in the game.
Hartford, which ranked second in the country while forcing 29.5 turnovers per game, had averaged 26 points per game off turnovers in their two tourney wins. Each team made 12 turnovers on Friday.
“We love to get out in transition. When we run, we’re a really good team. We try to score as many points as we can off turnovers,” said Millan.
UMaine also hit 12 3-pointers and outrebounded Hartford 41-27, including an 11-4 advantage on the offensive glass.
“We had to eliminate their wide-open threes and we didn’t do that,” said McNeill. “We had to take away the paint because it opens up a lot of things for them. And we had to rebound the ball. We weren’t able to do any of those things.”
McNeil said because of UMaine’s offensive weapons, an opponent’s margin of error is small.
“They play very well together, they’re confident and they play in front of an unbelievable crowd,” she said.
Wadling’s impressive stat line prompted Vachon to say, “Fanny means so much to our team and you saw that tonight.”
“I knew I was one of the tallest players on the court so, the past few weeks, I’ve been working on my inside moves,” said Wadling.