Maine coach Amy Vachon, right, and Albany coach Colleen Mullen hug after Albany won the America East Conference women's tournament title in an NCAA college basketball game, Friday, March 11, 2022, in Orono, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Head coach Amy Vachon, her staff and her University of Maine women’s basketball team were overachievers this season.

It was a remarkable turnaround for a team that started 6-10 overall to one that won 14 games in a row and the regular season America East Conference crown. After returning just two starters with 10 freshmen and sophomores on the roster, the Black Bears won nine consecutive road games en route to a 20-12 season including a 15-3 regular season mark in league play.

The 56-47 loss to Albany in the conference championship game at the Memorial Gym in Orono, which cost UMaine its third NCAA Tournament berth in five years, was disappointing. Albany turned in an exceptional performance and the Black Bears played poorly in all aspects of the game. Even a sold-out crowd at The Pit couldn’t rally them.

Friday night’s 69-44 loss at Boston College against the Atlantic Coast Conference Eagles in the first round of the WNIT wasn’t unexpected and UMaine played better than the score indicated.

The fact UMaine has now lost two consecutive league championship games at its home gym,  albeit last year’s 64-60 loss to Stony Brook was played in an empty gym due to COVID-19 restrictions, is a little bit of a concern.

What is preventing this program from winning these championship games at home? A lack of mental toughness? Subpar performances from its difference-makers? Defensive lapses? It is probably a combination of the three.

Stony Brook and Albany shot a combined 45.3 percent from the floor and 48 percent beyond the 3-point arc while UMaine shot 38.3 percent and 21.2 percent, respectively. Defensively, UMaine allowed career-high performances by Stony Brook’s Anastasia Warren (31 points) and Albany’s Morgan Haney (20 points) and UMaine simply wasn’t able to overcome its deficiencies.

While a lack of playoff experience may have played a role in the losses, it certainly didn’t impact sophomore forward Caroline Bornemann, who averaged a team-high 16 points per game in addition to 4.25 rebounds after averaging just 3.6 minutes of playing time a year ago.

Her emergence is one sign that the future is bright in Orono with all Black Bears besides graduate student forward Maeve Carroll returning. She was a three-time all-conference second teamer and popular team leader who departs as only the eighth player in program history to register 1,000 points and at least 700 rebounds.

Junior guard Anne Simon, Bornemann and sophomore point guard Alba Orois will supply the Black Bears with a formidable cast of returning starters. Freshman Paula Gallego began starting in the middle of the season. Sophomore guard Olivia Rockwood and freshman forward Adrianna Smith were the other two important components off the bench in Vachon’s seven-player rotation.

Simon, the league’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, led the league in scoring (16 ppg) and steals (2.75). She is 18th in the country among 349 teams in steals. She also averaged five rebounds and two assists. A tireless worker and exceptional defender, she will be even more effective if she improves her 3-point shooting. She shot just 24.1 percent from long distance in four playoff games and 30.8 percent overall.

Orois supplied the Black Bears with one of the league’s premier point guards after having averaged just 16 minutes of playing time a year ago. Her 5.75 assists per game led the conference and was 15th best in the country. She averaged 9.9 points and 2.8 rebounds per game and shot 46.1 percent overall, but she needs to reduce her turnovers (3.6 per game).

The 5-10 Bornemann had a breakthrough season and will certainly be in the all-conference conversation next season if she continues to improve. She wound up averaging 8.2 points and 4.2 rebounds per game, scored in double figures in all four playoff games and shot a team-best 36.4 percent from long distance.

Gallego evolved into a solid multi-purpose starter who averaged 3.1 points and 2.4 rebounds in 17.2 minutes per game. She can pass, shoot, defend, handle the ball and rebound and could blossom next season.

Rockwood is a 3-point specialist who hit at least two in nine games. She is also athletic and can defend on the perimeter. She averaged 4.1 ppg and should really benefit from increased playing time. The 5-10 Smith was an aggressive rebounder who also exhibited a scoring touch. She is yet another in a long line of undersized post players at UMaine, averaging 2.1 ppg and 2 rebounds in 7.2 minutes per game.

Freshman guard Bailey Wilborn had three consecutive games with four 3-pointers to help  UMaine beat Yale and Boston University but then went 6-for-48 the rest of the season as playingtime dwindled. But there’s no reason she can’t regain her touch and be a useful contributor next season especially with the player development skills of Vachon, a four-time conference coach of the year, and her staff.

Freshman guard Sera Hodgson started the first seven games and has promise as a versatile performer and freshman forward Penelope Castillo could provide depth inside while sophomore Lexi Mittestadt is a useful backup point guard.

Junior Anna Kahelin could give the team a lift as a long-armed defender and rebounder like she did her freshman year. A recurring knee issue sidelined her this season. Windham point guard Sarah Talon will bring her athleticism and resourceful all-around game to Orono.

The one thing that has been lacking at UMaine since the days of UMaine Sports Hall of Famers Jamie Cassidy and Heather Ernest from 1997-2004 is a dominant center who can produce 12-15 points and 10-12 rebounds on a nightly basis.

This year’s iteration of the Black Bears were small up front. Abbe Laurence, a gritty 6-2 rebounder, played just 12 games with a chronic knee issue, while 6-2 sophomore Katie White was also sidelined most of the season with a lower body injury. Highly touted incoming 6-foot-3 Milana Nenadic from Kitchener, Ontario, has a chance to be a productive post presence.