GORHAM – Are we there yet? No, kids, not quite.

Two thousand spectators shoehorned into Hill Gymnasium this evening are expecting the Bowdoin College and University of Southern Maine women’s basketball teams to clash Saturday with a berth in the NCAA Division III final four in the balance. Presumably, so is the NCAA, which sequestered the Maine schools in the same corner of the bracket and placed the sectional round within pedaling distance of both schools’ rabid fan base.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, however. Bowdoin and USM each encounter one final speed bump in tonight’s round of 16. The University of Mary Washington (29-1) stands between Bowdoin (26-2) and its fifth straight trip to the national quarterfinals, while Southern Maine (29-1) battles Bridgewater College (24-6).

Bowdoin’s game begins the Southern Maine-Virginia doubleheader at 5:30 p.m. The two surviving teams tip off at 7 p.m. Saturday for a trip to the championship bracket next weekend in Springfield, Mass.

“This will be our toughest game of the year to this point,” said Bowdoin coach Stefanie Pemper.

Tough is nothing new for the Polar Bears after hard-fought tournament triumphs over Colby-Sawyer and Brandeis. No. 1 USM, on the other hand, hasn’t experienced a scare in almost three months, and certainly not in the NCAAs. Since its lone loss at Salem State on Dec. 17, Southern Maine’s smallest margin of victory is 15 points.

“We won our first two games in the tournament by an average of 35 points. I’d say we played pretty well,” said USM coach Gary Fifield.

Bowdoin needed last-minute heroics from Justine Pouravelis and Julia Loonin to shake Brandeis, 59-56, in the second round.

“Brandeis was a huge win for us,” said Pemper. “They are another strong New England program, so it felt like a rivalry game. We did not want our season to end against Brandeis.”

In contrast to Bowdoin, Mary Washington is making its first-ever Sweet 16 appearance.

Nine different players average at least five points per game for the Eagles, and five have reached double figures in the tourney. Debbie Bruen is the leading scorer (12.5 points per game) and rebounder (7.8). Hickey, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, has blocked 138 shots.

Playoff experience favors Bowdoin, with versatile 5-11 senior Pouravelis and juniors Eileen Flaherty (16.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Julia Loonin leading the Polar Bears. Loonin and Marisa Berne have combined for 104 3-pointers. Freshmen Jill Anelauskas (11.0 ppg) and defensive stopper Alexa Kaubris of Rumford bolster the bench.

USM’s athleticism and defensive sensibilities are second to none in the nation. The Huskies’ tallest starter, 5-11 Megan Myles, is also one of their chief outside threats. The senior from Auburn nailed five 3-pointers and led Southern Maine with 24 points against Norwich.

“You just can’t give Meg open looks when she’s on,” Fifield said.

Junior All-America candidate Ashley Marble (16.9 ppg, 9.3 rpg) is the perfect complement, dominating the baseline and paint while consistently out-rebounding opponents who are six inches taller.

Bridgewater has its low-post pest in 6-2 freshman Rebecca Henderson, but the Eagles will sizzle or fizzle from the perimeter. They’ve hit 206 3-pointers this season, clicking at 36 percent from beyond the arc.

Senior sharpshooter Marsha Kinder (17.7 ppg) was Virginia’s top high school player in 1999. She transferred to her hometown school after stints at Division I West Virginia and James Madison. Shannon Scales and Kinder combined for three 3-pointers in the final minute of overtime to rally Bridgewater past Bates, 71-69, in a first-round game at Newburgh, N.Y. Bridgewater then beat Baruch, 72-49, to reach the sectional.


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