The quantity of Maine women’s basketball teams in the NCAA Division III tournament is actually down this winter. As for the quality, well, it has never been better.

Four nationally-ranked teams with more than 100 combined victories will begin their quest for the national championship at three sites Friday evening. Bowdoin College, the University of Southern Maine, the University of Maine at Farmington and Maine Maritime Academy all are entrenched in the 63-team field.

Thanks to a regionalized bracket designed to limit schools’ travel expenses in the early rounds, local fans won’t have to travel far to track their teams. Bowdoin and Southern Maine will host first and second-round contests this weekend, while UMF and Maine Maritime will play neutral-court opening games in Boston and Brunswick, respectively.

Bowdoin (26-1), ranked No. 1 in both acknowledged NCAA Division III national polls, entertains Mount Holyoke (21-7) on Friday evening at Morrell Gymnasium. That game will immediately follow the 5 p.m. opener between Maine Maritime (25-3) and Keene State (21-6). The winners collide at 5 p.m. Saturday.

USM (25-2) christens its chase of a third straight berth in the Division III final four at 8 p.m. Friday against Williams (20-6). Fitchburg State (25-2) and Norwich (24-3) meet first at 6 p.m., with the two survivors slated for a second-round clash at 7 p.m. Saturday.

As its reward for winning the North Atlantic Conference championship, UMF (25-3) gets to avoid its highly touted in-state rivals. That doesn’t mean the Beavers face an easy road. If Farmington overcomes fellow top-25 foe Brandeis (19-5) at 5:30 p.m. Friday, it most likely would meet host Emmanuel (27-1) on Saturday. The Saints square off with Salve Regina (22-6) in the other sub-regional game.

Eileen Flaherty (18.1 points per game), Jill Anelauskas and Rumford’s Alexa Kaubris (54 steals) lead Bowdoin, which may get a chance to avenge its only home court loss in recent memory in the second round.

Shelly Gott-Stilwell’s 3-pointer at the buzzer boosted Maine Maritime to a 51-49 victory over Bowdoin in January, ending a New England record home-court winning streak regardless of division or gender at 76 games. Alyssa Burns of Dixfield was NAC Player of the Year for the Mariners.

Keene State is no first-round pushover for MMA after ending another amazing victory streak – Southern Maine’s 75-game run in the Little East Conference – earlier this month.

The Huskies earned payback with a 68-57 win over Keene State on Saturday, collecting their 11th consecutive conference title. National player of the year candidate Ashley Marble is 89 points shy of 2,000 for her career entering the tournament.

Seniors Kari Simpson (15.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg) and Karen Sirois (12.0 ppg, 4.6 apg) and freshman Caitlyn Laflin (14.2 ppg) have led UMF to 18 straight wins, including three over Maine Maritime. Bowdoin, Bates and USM were the only schools to defeat Farmington. The Beavers lost to Norwich in the first round of the Gorham regional last year.

Bates did not make the field this season after falling to Tufts in the semifinals of the New England Small College Athletic Conference tournament.

The Sweet 16 and Elite 8 rounds are scheduled for Friday, March 9 and Saturday, March 10. As a result of its early-season victory over Southern Maine, its No. 1 ranking and its gym capacity of nearly 2,000, Bowdoin would be a likely choice to host a New England regional if it advances this weekend.

National semifinals and the championship game are set for the weekend of March 16-17 in Springfield, Mass. USM lost to Hope College of Michigan in last year’s final.

No Maine men’s teams were invited to the Division III tournament, but Kinsey Durgin of Greenwood and Rhode Island College will host a sub-regional Friday and Saturday. RIC captured the Little East Conference tournament title.

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