They aren’t your older sister’s University of Southern Maine women’s basketball team.

It’s the second weekend of March, though, so where else would someone find the Huskies but in an NCAA Division III regional semifinal, two steps away from the Final Four?

No. 8 Southern Maine (27-2) takes on No. 7 Calvin (27-2) of Grand Rapids, Mich., at 5:30 p.m. tonight on the campus of Emmanuel College in Boston. No. 13 Emmanuel (29-1) hosts No. 9 DePauw of Indiana at 7:30 p.m. in the other semifinal. The sectional final is set for 7 p.m. Saturday.

Win two games, and the Huskies will punch their third consecutive ticket to the Final Four on March 16-17 in Springfield, Mass. USM makes its seventh straight appearance in the Sweet 16 and its 18th in the last 23 years.

“We were able to find a way to survive,” said Southern Maine coach Gary Fifield.

He was talking about last weekend, when the Huskies dodged bullets from Williams (68-62) and Fitchburg State (65-54) in first and second-round home games. But Fifield’s assessment applies to the entire season.

Southern Maine lost its two senior captains, Shannon Kynoch and Katie Sibley, each to a torn knee ligament. Kynoch will apply for a medical hardship year and play in 2007-08. Sibley was stricken in early January after starting a dozen games. She wore a bulky brace to immobilize the knee and played limited minutes in the opening rounds of the tourney.

“It’s a full tear. It happened beyond the point where we could redshirt her, so she’s giving us all she can right now,” Fifield said.

The injuries further weakened a starting lineup that was already adjusting to life without four-year standouts Megan Myles, Donna Cowing and Katie Frost.

Even Ashley Marble struggled to find her footing early in the year while still recovering from off-season ankle surgery. The 5-foot-9 All-American from Topsfield saved her most brilliant season for last, averaging 22.8 points and 12.3 rebounds per game.

Pushing and shoving Marble don’t help defenses. She has swished more than 70 percent of her staggering 290 free throw attempts.

“Ashley is the only one of our top six from last year on the floor,” Fifield said. “There’s no secret that she is a great player and that our offense goes through her. She has been double and even triple-teamed, but she’s athletic enough to take it on.”

Stacey Kent has emerged as a dangerous second option down the stretch. Kent (10.8 points per game) has nailed 53 3-pointers at a 44 percent clip. She was 9-for-13 from beyond the arc last weekend.

Angela Santa Fe (8.7 ppg), Nicole Paradis (6.7) and Lindsey Welch (4.2) have benefited from the open looks at the basket created by opponents’ respect for Marble. Dawn Ross of Gray (19 3-pointers) provides another streaky shooter off the bench.

Calvin won two of three games against reigning national champion Hope College in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association this season. Hope downed USM in last year’s final.

Six-foot senior Lisa Winkle (14.1 ppg, 10 rpg) and 6-1 sophomore Marcia Harris (15.8, 5.5) will try to counter Marble underneath the basket. Kristi Brummel is a 3-point threat.

USM hosted the regional in its last two runs to the final four.

“I think we got a good break only having to go to Boston,” Fifield said. “Looking at the bracket last week, I fully expected we would get sent to the Midwest. I’m pretty happy to be staying in New England.”

If the Huskies win tonight, they will run into either an Emmanuel team with five players averaging at least nine points per game or a DePauw bunch with seven chipping in six points or more.

All three games in the Emmanuel bracket will be broadcast on the Web at www.d3hoops.com.


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