The youthful University of Maine women’s basketball team had a remarkable turnaround.
The Black Bears went from a sixth place team in America East to the league’s outright regular season champion thanks to their current 12-game winning streak.
But now it is playoff time, and the regular season is past tense.
UMaine needs three more wins to claim the tournament championship and earn the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. The Black Bears’ quest begins on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Memorial Gym in Orono when the top seed hosts No. 8 seed Hartford.
UMaine went 15-3 in league play and 18-10 overall while Hartford wound up 4-14 and 4-25.
In Saturday’s other quarterfinal matchups, No. 2 Albany will host No. 7 New Hampshire, No. 3 Vermont will entertain No. 6 Binghamton and No. 4 New Jersey Institute of Technology will await No. 5 UMass Lowell.
The semifinals will be held Tuesday with the highest seeded winner hosting the lowest seeded survivor and the two in-between seeds squaring off at the home court of the higher seed. The championship game will be Friday at 5 p.m.
This could be Hartford’s last game in America East because the Hawks are leaving the conference after this season and transitioning to NCAA Division III.
The Black Bears were upset by Stony Brook 64-60 in last year’s title game at Memorial Gym, affectionately referred to as The Pit, and didn’t get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament.
UMaine junior guard Anne Simon, who was chosen as the league’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, said that loss gives her extra motivation.
“I don’t want that to happen again. It definitely pushes me,” she said. “But we don’t think about that game, we’re just really excited to start the playoffs.”
Being the top seed can bring added pressure but UMaine graduate student forward Maeve Carroll doesn’t see it that way.
“Nobody thought we would be in the position we are right now,” said Carroll, who was selected to the All-America East second team for the third straight year. “So there shouldn’t be any pressure on us.”
Amy Vachon, who was chosen the league’s Coach of the Year for the fourth time, agreed with Carroll.
“If you can find someone who, in November, thought we would be where we are now, I’ll give you some money,” Vachon said.
The Black Bears said Hartford will be a formidable opponent. This will be the 11th and last time they will meet in the playoffs and they have split the first 10 games.
UMaine beat Hartford 65-44 in West Hartford on Jan. 5 but struggled with the Hawks on Feb. 16 before pulling away in the fourth quarter for a 71-56 victory.
“We were lucky to win that [second] game,” Vachon said. “They are playing really well right now. They have some really good players. They’re a good team. [Head coach Melissa Hodgdon] has done a fantastic job with them.
Hodgdon is from East Boothbay.
“We’re going to have to play our best as a team and as individuals. Everyone wants to beat us so they’re going to give us their best,” Carroll added.
UMaine has 10 freshmen and sophomores on their roster and Carroll and Simon, the only returning starters, said it has been neat watching the young players develop. And they are looking forward to playing in The Pit.
“Playing at home is really important. We enjoy playing in The Pit. We’ll get a lot of people to the game and not a lot of teams in our conference have played in an environment like The Pit. It’s a huge advantage,” Carroll said.
Simon, who leads the league in scoring (16.3 points per game) and steals (2.9) and has also averaged 4.9 rebounds, and AE’s top rebounder Carroll (8.5 rpg, 10.8 ppg, 3.4 assists) have been complemented by All-AE third team point guard and league assists leader Alba Orois (5.7 apg, 10.1 ppg) and forward Caroline Bornemann (7.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg).
Hartford, winner of two of its last three, features All-AE second team forward Paula Maurina (13.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg), Abby Streeter (9.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg), Carmen Villalobos (6.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Jabria Ingram (5.6 ppg, 2.8 apg, 2.4 rpg).