University of Maine forward Fanny Wadling and guard Blanca Millan celebrate in the closing seconds of the Black Bears’ win against UNH during an America East semifinal at the Cross Center Arena in Portland on Sunday. (Carl D. Walsh/Porland Press Herald)
PORTLAND — They had skill, senior leadership and certainly motivation.
But the New Hampshire Wildcats had no offense Sunday against the University of Maine.
With another strong defensive showing, Maine beat UNH 64-48 in the semifinals of the America East tourney at Cross Insurance Arena.
Top-seeded Maine (22-9) will host the conference championship game at 4 p.m. Friday at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor against sixth-seeded Hartford (19-12), which upset six-time defending champion Albany, 58-56. Maine beat Hartford twice this year, 59-44 and 59-56.
The Black Bears, hosting a conference final for the first time in 20 years, are seeking their first conference championship — and NCAA tournament berth — since 2004.
“It’s hard to go on the road for a championship game,” said Maine coach Amy Vachon, whose Black Bears lost the last two league title games at Albany.
“It’s great that our kids put themselves in this position.”
Blanca Millan paced Maine with 16 points, eight rebounds and two blocks. Tanesha Sutton added 14 points. Parise Rossignol came off the bench for 13 points. Freshman point guard Dor Saar didn’t look like a freshman with seven points and five assists.
Fifth-seeded New Hampshire is done at 19-12 with three losses to Maine. Sunday’s game was also a rematch of last year’s semifinal, when Maine shocked UNH, the top seed, 61-52.
The Wildcats looked for revenge but couldn’t penetrate the Black Bears’ defense. After three quarters, UNH was shooting 21 percent and trailed 47-28. The Wildcats scored only eight points inside.
“They do a really good job of packing it in on the post players,” said UNH senior 6-foot-2 forward Kat Fogarty, who had 12 points and 10 rebounds. “They usually have one person in front and one in back. They make it difficult to get inside.
“When they get in the driving lanes, it’s really hard. You’ve got to shoot them out of it.”
In the first half, Maine alternated between zone and man-to-man, keeping the ball from Fogarty and 6-2 Carlie Pogue (10 points, 11 rebounds). Point guard Brittni Lai scored 17 points, but the rest of the UNH guards totaled nine.
While UNH was the underdog and had seven seniors, it played tentative. The Wildcats couldn’t get inside, so instead took hurried or ill-advised shots.
“We can’t settle for contested jumpers,” UNH coach Maureen Magarity said. “That was a little frustrating. I think we were a little shell-shocked.
“There was a lot on the line. We settled for the easy way out the first couple of minutes … they were trying to will the ball in a few times.”
In a physical first quarter, Maine jumped ahead 15-6. The Wildcats looked frustrated.
Maine’s 6-1 sophomore Fanny Wadling (seven rebounds) and the 5-10 Sutton were relentless inside defensively. Millan, at 6-1, helped double inside or rushed to contest outside shots.
“We had to box out and disrupt,” Millan said.
UNH closed the deficit to five but Maine responded. Rossignol’s put-back jumper at the buzzer gave the Black Bears a 31-21 halftime lead.
“As soon as we started to feel good, they would make a run of their own,” Magarity said.
That was evident in the third quarter.
Maine started the second half scorching — Sutton layup and 3-pointer, Millan baseline drive, Julie Brouseau drive — and led 40-22.
The Wildcats’ last hope came with 4:27 left in the third quarter. They closed to 40-28 and Wadling left with four fouls.
But UNH failed on its next six possessions — two missed shots and four turnovers, three on forced passes inside.
Maine went on a 7-0 run, completed by a Millan steal, then fast-break pass to Kirsten Johnson for the layup, to open a 47-28 lead.
Johnson, who subs in for Wadling, recorded two points and five rebounds.
Two Rossignol jumpers began the fourth quarter for a 51-28 lead, and Maine soon was celebrating.
UNH forward Kat Fogarty, front, and University of Maine guard Tanesha Sutton roll onto the floolr for ball control during an America East semifinal at the Cross Center Arena in Portland on Sunday. (Carl D. Walsh/Porland Press Herald)UNH forward Kat Fogarty and University of Maine guard Tanesha Sutton pursue the ball during an America East semifinal at the Cross Center Arena in Portland on Sunday. (Carl D. Walsh/Porland Press Herald)