A black bear sculpture stands guard in front of the south entrance to the University of Maine's Memorial Gym on the Orono campus. While planned new pavement on the access road may be the only noticeable change on the outside, the interior of the building is getting a significant facelift. Credit: BDN Photo by Pete Warner

The University of Maine women’s basketball team opens its season by hosting the Tip-Off Tournament on Friday and Saturday at Memorial Gym, aka “The Pit” in Orono.

The Black Bears aren’t playing on their home court, the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, because the Maine Harvest Festival is being held there on Saturday and Sunday.

Harvesting victories won’t be easy for the youthful Black Bears because there are three quality opponents in the field, each of which earned postseason berths a year ago: Tulane, Dayton and Harvard.

It is the first time the UMaine women have played a regular-season game at The Pit since a season-ending 86-63 loss to New Hampshire on March 2, 2013. That game was played four days after the Black Bears were involved in a bus accident in Massachusetts.

UMaine played a 2014 exhibition game at The Pit against McGill.

UMaine head coach Amy Vachon said playing at The Pit will be fine.

“We practice there every day. That will help us out,” said Vachon.

UMaine players are anxious to play at cozy, 82-year-old Memorial Gym, which holds 1,300 fans as compared to the four-year-old Cross Insurance Center (capacity 5,800).

“It’s really exciting,” said UMaine sophomore forward Blanca Millan. “It’s on campus and the fans will be great.

“Since we practice here every day, we really know the gym, the court and the baskets. And the fans will be close to us. They will be right above us,” added Millan.

“To have everyone packed in the gym is going to be a great environment,” said junior guard Tanesha Sutton. “It’s going to be spectacular having everyone looking down on us.”

The Black Bears, 18-16 a year ago and America East tournament finalists for the second straight year, open the Tip-off Tournament at 6 p.m. Friday against Tulane. The Green Wave went 18-15 and won two games in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament before losing in the third round to Alabama 72-64.

Dayton (22-10 last season) and Harvard (21-9) square off at approximately 8 p.m. Dayton losing to Tennessee 66-57 in the first round of the NCAAs and Harvard went 1-1 in the WNIT.

Saturday’s games are set for 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and UMaine plays at 4, regardless of whether it’s the championship game or consolation contest.

“It’s a great field,” said Vachon. “It’s really exciting. There’s going to be a lot of good basketball this weekend.”

UMaine beat former Black Bear head coach Sharon Versyp’s Purdue University team 67-47 last year’s Tip-Off Tournament at the Cross Insurance Center then lost to eventual NCAA runner-up and UConn conqueror Mississippi State 87-43 in the championship game.

Tulane, which beat UMaine 77-62 last season, has posted exhibition wins over Loyola-New Orleans (78-48) and South Alabama (65-51). It returns three starters including senior guard Kolby Morgan (19.2 points, 5.5 rebounds per game), who scored 26 against UMaine.

Dayton also has three starters back led by senior guard and second-leading scorer Jenna Burdette (12 points, 4.7 assists per game) while Harvard has four starters back paced by sophomore guard Katie Benzan, who was the Crimson’s top scorer as a freshman last year (13.4 ppg).

Harvard beat UMaine 69-62 last season at Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Black Bears, who lost an exhibition game to Division II Stonehill, are led by Millan (8.6 ppg) and Sutton (7.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg), UMaine’s third and fourth-leading scorers off last year’s team.

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