The America East champion University of Maine women’s basketball team passed its first test in its quest to add the league’s tournament championship to its resume on Saturday.
The eighth-seeded Hartford Hawks made the Black Bears work hard for their 63-49 victory and it wasn’t decided until Caroline Bornemann’s two free throws with 1:46 remaining gave UMaine an 11-point cushion.
The 19-10 Black Bears will look to book their ticket to Friday’s championship game on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. at the Memorial Gymnasium when they entertain No. 4 the New Jersey Institute of Technology, which is 15-14.
Vermont, 20-10, and Albany, 21-9, are meeting in the other semifinal in Albany.
NJIT held fifth seed UMass Lowell to a 26 percent shooting performance and outscored the River Hawks 29-16 in the second half to oust them 47-33 in their quarterfinal on Saturday.
The Black Bears and Highlanders split during the regular season with NJIT earning a 67-59 overtime win at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Jan. 2 and UMaine rebounding to post a 77-43 win in Newark, New Jersey, on Feb. 19.
UMaine junior guard and America East Player and Defensive Player of the Year Anne Simon and all-league third team sophomore point guard Alba Orois said there is plenty of room for improvement over Saturday’s performance.
UMaine shot just 19 percent beyond the 3-point arc (4-for-21) and turned the ball over 14 times, although the Black Bear press forced 20 Hartford turnovers leading to a 28-4 advantage in points off turnovers.
“Our threes weren’t falling but we found solutions to score. We got good looks inside and our shooting percentage was pretty high,” Simon said.
UMaine shot 55.6 percent inside the 3-point arc.
Simon was an uncharacteristic 1-for-8 from long distance.
“I know I can shoot so I’m going to keep shooting the ball. I’ve been working on it in practice and I will be confident coming into the game,” she said.
“We didn’t play as well as we could against Hartford and I’m sure we will play a better game Tuesday,” Orois said. “It gives us confidence that we didn’t play our best but we still won.”
Simon and three-time All-AE second team selection Maeve Carroll were the only two Black Bears who had ever started a playoff game.
But sophomore forward Bornemann scored a game-high and career-high 21 points and also had three rebounds, two assists and two steals in her first playoff start. Orois had a game-high six assists and five points and freshman forward Paula Gallego grabbed seven rebounds and had three points.
Freshman forward Adrianna Smith had two assists, a rebound and a basket over 5:37 while giving Carroll and sophomore guard Olivia Rockwood a breather over her 5:18 of playing time.
The Black Bears will be facing an NJIT team that had a better road record in America East (6-3) than it did at home (3-5).
Junior guard Kenna Squier had a career-high 24 points in the win over UMaine but was held to five in the loss.
“She is a fantastic player. She really hurt us the first time,” said UMaine coach Amy Vachon. “We’re going to have to do a better job defensively than we did in the first game. In the second game, we did a nice job and hopefully we can continue that,” Vachon added.
Simon will enter the game averaging a league-best 16.3 points and 2.9 steals to go with 5.1 rebounds. Carroll has produced 10.9 points, a league-high 8.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Orois is averaging 10 points and three rebounds to go with her 5.7 assists, Bornemann has been good for 7.6 points and 4.1 rebounds and Gallego has contributed 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds.
Mike Lane’s Highlanders feature All-League third teamers Squier (11.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2 apg), and Lyzi Litwinko (10.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.1 apg) along with Ellyn Stoll (11 ppg, 1.8 rpg), Kimi Evans (7.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and Maria Fux (3.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg).