After getting humiliated by a mediocre University of Maryland, Baltimore County, team 74-54 at the Cross Insurance Center on Jan. 26, expectations for the University of Maine women’s basketball team dropped sharply.
The injury ravaged Black Bears were 8-14 overall, with three losses in four games, and were 4-4 in conference play.
Without 2019 America East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Blanca Millan (knee surgery) and 2019 America East rebounding leader Fanny Wadling (concussion), along with three other role players sidelined for the season, it was hard to envision a top-four finish.
Instead, UMaine won the next 10 games, earned the No. 2 seed and beat Vermont and UMass Lowell in the playoffs to earn a fifth consecutive title-game appearance.
UMaine (18-14) travels to Long Island to play top seed Stony Brook (28-3) in Friday’s 5 p.m. AE championship game.
The Black Bears have been two to four inches shorter, per starter, than their opponents. And they don’t rank in the top half of the league in terms of athleticism.
The job turned in by head coach Amy Vachon and assistants Courtney England, Tom Biskup and Parise Rossignol has been remarkable.
Vachon should have been the league’s coach of the year, but it is understandable Stony Brook coach Caroline McCombs won it after leading the Seawolves to their first America East regular-season championship and a 22-game winning streak.
Vachon and her staff had to find a way to get the players to maximize their strengths, improve their weaknesses, find the right rotation for each particular opponent with a limited bench, make in-game adjustments and mix up defenses.
Against UMass Lowell, UMaine used a 2-3 zone rather than player-to-player defense to force the River Hawks to shoot outside and not allow them to get to the rim easily — as they had in a regular-season win over the Black Bears.
UMaine had only nine healthy players until the Vermont playoff game when 5-foot-11 guard and sixth player Anna Kahelin became the fifth Black Bear to suffer a season-ending knee injury.
They were down to eight against UMass Lowell and that is the reality. Two of those players, forwards Gaddy Lefft (Achilles tendon) and Kira Barra (knee), are battling nagging injuries that limit their minutes.
Vachon has a resilient group of players that is gritty, mentally tough and unselfish. They are also sound fundamentally and have high basketball IQs.
“The resolve they have is incredible,” Vachon said after the UMass Lowell win. “To see how they’ve grown from the Drexel game [70-57 loss on Dec. 30] to now is indescribable. It’s a credit to them. They have never complained.”
It is a team full of overachievers and feisty competitors who have dug deep to find different ways to win.
Junior forward Maeve Carroll would have been a lock for the league’s most improved player if it had such an award. In her first two playoff starts, the second-team All-America East selection has averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
Junior point guard Dor Saar, a second-team all-league pick, has been a team leader. She is among the national leaders in minutes played and has averaged 14.5 points and five assists in the postseason despite missing 12 minutes of the UML game with foul trouble.
Rookie of the Year and All-AE second-team guard Anne Simon hasn’t been fazed by her first college playoff experience, averaging 18 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists.
Then there is Maddy McVicar of Calais, a fearless senior guard who epitomizes this team.
She didn’t play as a freshman (2015-2016) and averaged just 5.6 minutes during the next two years. She played 13.5 minutes per game last season and has been rewarded for her perseverance, averaging nearly 10 points and four rebounds a game as a starter this winter.
Junior guard and 3-point specialist Kelly Fogarty is having her best year (7 ppg) and has evolved into an adequate defender and rebounder. Kahelin was an exceptional defender and a decent rebounder.
Lefft and Barra have provided some useful depth inside to spell Carroll.
The Black Bears will be decided underdogs at Stony Brook. The Seawolves are 15-0 at home and are eager to avenge a 64-62 overtime loss to UMaine on Feb. 23 in Bangor that snapped their 22-game winning streak.
But you can’t count this Black Bear team out. They lost by four points on Jan. 5 at Stony Brook, when Kahelin played only nine minutes.
If UMaine does win, the NCAA Tournament selection committee would be happy. It would be a lot cheaper to send the “Merry Band of Eight” to a regional in a van than it would be to fly a 14-player roster there.
But this group deserves to travel first class.