The University of Maine women’s basketball team has annexed its third America East regular-season championship in four seasons.
Coach Amy Vachon’s Black Bears, 15-2 overall and 12-2 in the conference, have earned a first-round bye for the seven-team, single-elimination tournament.
UMaine has a 2 p.m. game left Saturday against visiting New Hampshire.
The Black Bears will be favored to win the tournament, especially since they will be playing at home throughout the playoffs — albeit with no fans. But they are by no means a shoo-in to win the league title and earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite a senior-laden lineup, UMaine has been beatable, especially when it doesn’t shoot well from the perimeter. The team has lacked consistency during a season marked by COVID-19 complications and a schedule that features back-to-back weekend games.
Three America East teams have opted out this winter, citing COVID-19 concerns.
The Black Bears came into this season with four seniors who had played at least 81 career games in seniors Blanca Millan (106), Dor Saar (97), Maeve Carroll (90), Fanny Wading (88) and Kelly Fogarty (81).
Even so, UMaine lost to a New Hampshire team that is 5-13, squeaked out a 63-62 nonconference win over Northeastern (4-11) and beat a 3-9 Harford team by only three points (52-49).
Last weekend, the Black Bears needed their best quarter of the season to salvage a split of their two-game series at second-place Stony Brook.
Stony Brook, which ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense (50.7 points per game) held UMaine to 30.6 percent shooting before the Bears went 9-for-14 in the fourth quarter on Sunday to erase a nine-point deficit.
Vachon called the series an anomaly and blamed the shooting woes on the fact that UMaine dedicated most of its practice time in recent weeks to defense while preparing for UMass Lowell and Stony Brook.
“We’re spending a lot of time this week on our offense and, hopefully, that will help,” Vachon said.
The back-to-back games against the same opponent have been a challenge. That dynamic has been complicated by the fact UMaine has played 13 of 17 games on the road.
Only Santa Clara (15) and Stanford (14) have played more road games in Division I.
UMaine’s trademark defense continues to be top notch, allowing only 52.4 points per game to rank eighth in the nation. Vachon has used a three-quarter-court press more this season and it was a vital component in the fourth-quarter comeback against Stony Brook, forcing turnovers that led to transition baskets.
The Black Bears are 21st in turnover margin at plus-5.29 and 26th with a 1.21 assist-to-turnover ratio. They rank tied for 48th with 9.6 steals per contest.
UMaine has relied heavily on 3-pointers again this season and leads America East while shooting 32 percent on a league-most 390 attempts. Saar’s 40 3-pointers and 38 percent accuracy lead the conference and Millan is second with 28.
Three-point specialist Fogarty (5.4 ppg) is shooting 30.1 percent from the 3-point arc overall and only 23 percent in the last eight games.
Senior Maeve Carroll, a 2020 all-conference selection, is UMaine’s only half-court interior scorer and averages 10.4 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Millan (21.7 ppg, 7.4 rpg) and sophomore Anne Simon (12.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg) are productive slashers and good outside shooters. Saar (9.7 ppg, 5.2 assists per game) is UMaine’s all-time leading 3-point scorer with 230.
Millan ranks fifth on the school’s career scoring list with 1,916 points and is second with 318 steals.
Wadling (3.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg) could provide a boost with some inside scoring but is playing more away from the basket.
Freshman guard Alba Orois (3.2 ppg) is the only other player averaging more than 10 minutes per game (15.6) but sophomore Anna Kahelin, a good defender who has appeared in five games after returning from knee surgery, could give them a lift in the playoffs.
Vachon insists this team has more depth than UMaine has had in a while with its eight- or nine-player rotation.
UMaine has yet to play its best basketball. But if the Black Bears can consistently capitalize on their experience and balance, they are capable of winning the America East championship and even winning an NCAA Tournament game.
Unlike UMaine’s last two NCAA appearances, when it lost to teams playing on their home courts (Texas and North Carolina State), this year’s tourney is being played on neutral courts in and around San Antonio, Texas.