It is rare to call a 17-3 season disappointing.
But for the University of Maine women’s basketball team, expectations are high every season.
The Black Bears have reached the America East tournament championship game six straight years and are 91-20 in league play over the past seven years. That includes a 151-59 overall mark and a 14-4 AE tourney record.
That’s why UMaine’s 64-60 loss to Stony Brook in Friday’s championship game in an empty Memorial Gym in Orono, turned a potentially noteworthy season into a frustrating campaign.
The Black Bears, who were 11-2 on the road, won the regular-season title but failed to make their third straight NCAA Tournament appearance after the event was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
They opted not to pursue the opportunity to play in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
This season’s UMaine team was better and deeper than than the 2019-20 entry, which was decimated by injuries that claimed 2019 America East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Blanca Millan (knee) and 2019 AE rebounding leader Fanny Wadling (concussion).
Despite their return, lots of experience and a repeat of the league’s top honors by Millan, this winter’s Black Bears failed to dominate.
Four of their regular-season victories were by five points or less and they took only single-digit leads into the fourth quarter of four more wins.
UMaine didn’t match up well against a more athletic Stony Brook team that won two of three season meetings, the margin of error was thin.
Head coach Amy Vachon shouldered some blame for the title-game loss, saying she shouldn’t have sat Millan and Maeve Carroll when they picked up their second fouls in the second quarter — although that has been a common practice to prevent another foul in the first half.
UMaine led 34-23 with 5:16 left when Millan joined Carroll on the bench and Stony Brook rattled off a 10-2 run to end the half to pull within three and build momentum that saw the Seawolves hold cold-shooting (0-for-9) UMaine scoreless for 7:22 in the third period to take a six-point lead.
The gritty and resilient Black Bears fought their way back into the game, taking a 56-55 lead with 2:33 left, but the Seawolves outscored UMaine 9-4 down the stretch to earn a well-deserved first title and trip to the NCAA Tournament. Stony Brook outrebounded UMaine 42-22 and held UMaine to 4-for-20 shooting from the 3-point arc.
The Black Bears will have a new look and a stiff challenge next season.
Millan and point guard Dor Saar can’t be easily replaced and Wadling and senior guard Kelly Fogarty are also expected to depart. Carroll is returning for a fifth season as allowed by an NCAA waiver put in place because of the pandemic.
Millan likely will embark on a pro career after five years in Orono and Saar must serve a military commitment in her native Israel.
Millan became the league’s first two-time single-season winner of the Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards. She averaged 21.4 points per game, 7.5 rebounds, 2.9 steals and 2.3 assists.
Millan finished a sensational career as the program’s No. 5 career scorer (1,974 points) to go along with 599 rebounds and 324 steals.
Saar (9.5 ppg, 4,8 apg, 2.9 rpg, 2 spg) is the only player in program history to finish with 1,000 points (1,069, 21st all time) and 500 assists (507, 2nd all time). She made a school-record 235 career 3-pointers.
Wadling (3.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.2 apg) posted 588 career rebounds and Fogarty (5.5 ppg) was a streaky 3-point specialist.
The return of two-time second-team All-AE forward Carroll (10.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 3.2 apg) and first-team guard Anne Simon (12.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.9 spg) gives the Black Bears a formidable one-two punch next season.
Freshman point guard Alba Orois (3.6 ppg) received a lot of playing time and a healthy Anna Kahelin, who returned at midseason after knee surgery and saw limited service, will also be counted upon, as will aggressive backup post player Abbe Laurence.
Freshmen Caroline Bornemann, Katie White, Olivia Rockwood and Lexi Mittelstadt saw just a handful of minutes although Vachon insists it is a talented freshman class.
Five incoming players include guards Paula Gallego from Spain, Bailey Wilborn from Kansas and Sera Hodgson from New Hampshire along with Candian forward Penelope Mathieu-Castillo and Adrianna Smith from Virginia.
Saar, Millan and Fogarty combined to hit 596 3-pointers in their careers so that void must be filled.
UMaine will always play good team defense and their 52.7 points per game allowed ranked seventh among 336 Division I teams.
The loss to Stony Brook should serve as extra motivation for Vachon, a fierce competitor who has been named the league’s coach of the year three times in her four years.
UMaine should be a top-four America East team in 2021-22 but in order to earn a seventh straight berth in the final, they are going to have to receive sizable contributions from inexperienced players or newcomers.