VESTAL, New York — All season, the University of Maine women’s basketball team has generated confidence and momentum by making shots.
On Sunday afternoon, the University of Hartford’s gritty defense made sure most of those shots came from the perimeter and the Black Bears could not find the range.
Top-seeded UMaine’s NCAA season came to an unceremonious end in the America East semifinals, where the fifth-seeded Hawks rode a dominating post performance by Cherelle Moore to earn a 65-54 victory at Binghamton University’s Events Center.
“Cherelle Moore played like one of the best players in the league, and she is,” said UMaine coach Richard Barron.
The Black Bears (23-8), who beat Hartford twice during the regular season, will continue their season in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament after earning an automatic bid by virtue of winning the America East regular-season title.
Hartford (16-16) advances to next Friday’s conference championship game against No. 2 Albany, which beat No. 6 Maryland Baltimore County 66-37 on Sunday.
Moore was a force for Hartford. She made 11 of 16 shots on the way to a game-high 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
“For us on the offensive end, we want to get in there deep and get as many layups as we can,” Moore said.
“We’ve just got to do a better job of making sure we get better ball pressure on the person passing it into the post,” said junior Mikaela Gustafsson, who had 10 points and three rebounds. “I think maybe we put a lot of focus on their guards, trying to prevent them from shooting the ball outside.”
Moore’s success was a stark contrast to the struggles of Black Bears all-conference performer Liz Wood. The junior missed all nine of her field-goal attempts and was held scoreless.
“It was tournament basketball and it’s been a long time since we’ve seen Liz Wood not score, but she sure played hard,” Barron said.
Wood pulled down a game-best 11 rebounds and provided two assists and a steal in 30 minutes. Hartford opted to drop a second defender into the paint, almost daring the Bears to take their chances from the perimeter.
“Our guys did a great job of clogging up the driving lanes,” said Harford coach Jen Rizzotti. “They did a great job of helping in the post and it kind of forced Liz out on the perimeter more and her shot wasn’t on today. We can’t take credit for all of it.”
The Black Bears attempted 28 more field goals than Hartford, but shot 31 percent (22-for-72), including only 7-for-34 (21 percent) from the 3-point arc.
“I feel like we’re sometimes a team to feed off each other, so if our shooters don’t hit shots in the beginning, maybe people will start taking rushed shots,” said Sophie Weckstrom, who led UMaine with 13 points. “Some days you just don’t shoot well.”
Hartford complemented Moore’s play from outside as Amber Bepko scored 14 points, including three 3’s, and Morgan Lumb provided 11 points and nine rebounds. The Hawks shot 55 percent from the floor (24-for-44) and outscored UMaine 34-24 in the paint.
“We need to make those shots, we didn’t shoot them with confidence,” Barron said of the 3-pointers. “We didn’t shoot to make them. We were very anxious.”
Sophomore Sigi Koizar contributed 12 points on 5-for-15 shooting and provided nine rebounds, three assists and two steals, while Bella Swan added nine points and seven rebounds.
Moore scored six consecutive points to fuel a 15-5 run to end the first half that sent Hartford into the locker room up 32-22.
After trailing by as many as 12 points early in the second half, UMaine battled back. Anna Heise scored all eight of her points, including two 3’s, during a 14-6 rally that got the Black Bears back in it at 45-42 with 9:42 left.
UMaine later cut the deficit to two (49-47) on Weckstrom’s step-back 3-pointer with 7:08 remaining, but Moore came to the rescue. She scored from underneath on back-to-back possessions to restore a six-point advantage.
“We fought and we got it down a couple times, but you’ve got to keep pushing at that point and just try to get over [the hump], cut it down more,” Gustafsson said.
Koizar picked up her fourth foul midway through the half and Wood played the last 4:39 with four and eventually fouled out.
“They got into the bonus awfully early (8:16 left),” Barron said.
“We didn’t have any free throws in the second half and that’s a big key to the game, to get those free throws and keep attacking,” Barron said.
Hartford set a positive tone in the first half, shooting 58 percent while scoring 20 points in the paint. That forced UMaine to abandon its 2-3 matchup zone in favor of player-to-player defense, which is what the Hawks wanted.
“I really thought the key to the game was handling their zone and their pressure and getting them out of that early because we really struggled at Maine (against the zone),” Rizzotti said.
UMaine never found its rhythm, going 8-for-33 (24 percent) and made only 3 of 16 (19 percent) from long distance in the half.