University of Maine women's basketball junior guard Anne Simon looks for an open teammate in a November 2021 game against Providence College. Credit: Seth Poplaski / UMaine Athletics

After its first home loss to the University of Massachusetts Lowell on Jan. 19, the University of Maine women’s basketball team found itself in an unfamiliar position: sixth place in America East.

The Black Bears, who have won three of the last four regular season championships, were 3-3 in the conference and 6-10 overall.

A lot has changed since then.

UMaine has won five straight conference games and is in third place, one game behind second place Albany, which will invade the Memorial Gym in Orono for a 7 p.m. game on Wednesday.

The two teams are now the frontrunners to earn the top seed for the America East tournament and the advantage of hosting playoff games after league leader Stony Brook was banned from the postseason. Stony Brook’s ban came after it announced it’s leaving America East for the Colonial Athletic Association at the end of the school year.

UMaine, 8-3 in the conference and 11-10 overall, has won the last nine meetings with Albany, 9-2 and 16-6.

Albany also brings a five-game winning streak into the contest.

“It’s an important game but every other game is just as important if you want to be the top seed,” said graduate student forward Maeve Carroll.

UMaine head coach Amy Vachon added that even if the Black Bears defeat Albany on Wednesday, they have to keep that momentum through the rest of the season to get the top spot.

“We are really trying to position ourselves to host some playoff games so every game is really important no matter who you are playing,” Vachon said. “We have to bring our best effort every night,” she added.

Following Wednesday’s game, each team has six conference games remaining, including a rematch between the two in Albany on Feb. 23.

UMaine has road games left at Stony Brook (10-1 in the conference), NJIT (5-5) and Albany, along with two home games against UMBC (1-6) and one with Hartford (2-7).

Albany will have home games against Vermont (7-4), Binghamton (1-8), Stony Brook and UMaine, and road games at New Hampshire (1-8) and Vermont.

Carroll’s offensive resurgence for UMaine in its two wins over Binghamton last weekend could be an important factor on Wednesday.

The two-time All-AE second teamer averaged 14 points in the two road wins after averaging 6.6 points over the previous six games.

“It was just a matter of gaining my confidence back,” Carroll said. “When you’re struggling, you don’t want to force anything. You don’t look at the basket as much. But once you get that one basket and then the next basket, you start to build confidence and I got back to the way I can play.”

The game will pit the nation’s best defensive team in Albany, limiting teams to 46.9 points per game, against a UMaine team that has surrendered only 41.8 ppg during its five-game winning streak.

“Albany is a really good team,” Vachon said. “They are experienced, they are big and they shoot the ball really well. They are well-rounded.”

UMaine junior guard Anne Simon continues to lead America East in scoring (16.1 points per game) and steals (3.2) and she is also grabbing 4.8 rebounds. Carroll is the league’s top rebounder (8.3) and is also averaging 10.3 points and 3.2 assists. Sophomore point guard Alba Orois tops the league in assists (5.3) to go with her 8.9 points and sophomore Caroline Bornemann is averaging 6.1 points and four rebounds.

Six-foot guard Kayla Cooper (12.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg), 6-1 forward Helene Haegerstrand (11.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg), 6-3 forward Lucia Descortes (6.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, league-leading 1.7 blocks) and 5-11 guard Ellen Hahne (7.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg) pace the Great Danes.