BANGOR — There was reason for alarm. Maine was deadlocked with Hartford at halftime of the America East women’s basketball final, and its top scorer, Blanca Millan, had only four points.
Coach Amy Vachon had a feeling that was about to change, however.
“I’m never worried about Blanca,” she said. “The kid’s a stud. She comes to play when she needs to come to play.”
Hartford wasn’t quite as successful defending the sophomore guard in the second half, and the Hawks’ hopes of an upset disappeared. Millan finished with 22 points and the top-seeded Black Bears followed her lead, finishing off a 74-65 win over No. 6 Hartford to take the conference championship at Cross Insurance Center.
It’s the first league title for Maine since 2004, and the victory sends the Black Bears to the NCAA tournament. The historical significance of the win wasn’t lost on Vachon.
“When someone said 14 years since we’ve gone (to the NCAA tournament), I was kind of surprised at it. It just didn’t seem like that long, but it has been,” said Vachon, who helped lead the Black Bears (23-9) to four NCAA bids as a player from 1997-2000. “To be able to bring it back … is just really great.”
Early on, Maine had trouble shaking the upset-minded Hawks (19-13). The lead changed hands eight times in the first half as Hartford seemed poised to pull off another stunner, after come-from-behind upset wins over Binghamton and Albany.
“We just weren’t getting stops,” said Maine junior guard and Van Buren native Parise Rossignol, who scored 12 points. “So, coming out (for the second half), we just wanted to focus on getting a stop, and then getting a bucket.”
That approach worked, thanks to Millan finding her form. She scored nine of Maine’s first 12 points of the third quarter, the last two on a jumper that gave Maine a 48-44 lead.
From there, the floodgates opened. Dor Saar, scoreless in the first half, knocked down a 3-pointer. Millan buried another jumper, and Fanny Wadling (10 points, eight rebounds) finished a perfect feed from Tanesha Sutton (11 points), putting the Black Bears ahead 55-44 and raising the noise level from the 3,373 fans in attendance.
“My teammates at halftime told me ‘You’ve got to let go what happened and start over,’” said Millan, who scored 11 points in the third quarter on her way to earning the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. “We’ve just got to get a stop and come back, get a stop and come back.”
The momentum had swung. The Maine players could feel it.
“Honestly, I did,” Sutton said. “But coach is always reminding us they’re probably going to make a run, too.”
Hartford ended Maine’s run with a 3-pointer, but Rossignol hit another on the next possession, and two Sutton free throws made it 60-47 at the end of the quarter. The roll continued into the fourth quarter as Sutton scored on a drive, Millan knocked down a 3-pointer and Sutton finished off a pass from Julie Brosseau (16 points) to stretch the lead to 67-51 with 6:38 left.
Maine made 12 of its first 18 shots in the second half, but the Hawks took the blame for the game’s quick shift.
“When they went on their run, we kind of fell apart defensively and we didn’t come together,” said junior guard Lindsey Abed.
“When they went on their run and we couldn’t score, we allowed it to affect the defensive end of the floor,” said Hartford Coach Kim McNeill. “That’s not who we are.”
And it wasn’t enough against an opponent that wasn’t about to let its title drought continue for another year.
“This is so surreal,” Rossignol said. “It’s incredible.”
University of Maine players celebrate their victory over Hartford 74-65 Friday night in Bangor to earn a spot in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald)