Maine’s Tanesha Sutton dribbles around Stony Brook’s Oksana Gouchie-Provencher last month at the Augusta Civic Center. Kennebec Journal photo by Andy Molloy

 

Preseason polls are often tricky. Any number of things, especially injuries, can derail what is supposed to be a successful season.

But the folks in America East women’s basketball got it right this year.

The teams picked to finish 1-2 in the preseason poll will meet Friday in the America East championship game. Top-seeded Maine (24-7, 15-1 conference) will play second-seeded Hartford (23-9, 14-2) at 5 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. The winner advances to the NCAA tournament. The loser likely heads to the women’s NIT.

This is the second year in a row these teams meet in the America East title game, with Maine winning last season, 74-65. The Black Bears are playing in their 19th America East title game — and fourth in a row — with eight championships. Hartford is playing in its 11th, with five titles.

“You’ve got the two best teams in the league,” Hartford coach Kim McNeill said. “We had an opportunity to finish first (and host the title game) but laid an egg in Binghamton. Now we know, if we want to win the championship, we have to go through Maine.”

This is an intriguing matchup, featuring one of the nation’s top defensive teams (Hartford) against a very balanced offensive team (Maine).

Hartford is second in the nation in steals per game (13.2), forced turnovers per game (24.9) and turnover margin (plus-9.7) and is 19th in the nation in points allowed (56.2). Maine was second in the nation in turnovers (only 11.1 per game), seventh in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.44) and leads America East in scoring with 67.2 points per game.

“They play a style of basketball very different from a lot of teams,” Maine coach Amy Vachon said. “They’re up and down, they want to turn you over. They want to create offense off their turnovers, so they press a lot. That’s not something you see much.”

Vachon said the Black Bears simply have to do what they’ve done all season: rebound, move the ball and take care of the ball.

“We’ve just got to do the little things that have gotten us to this point,” she said. “We’re not going to change a lot.”

The teams split in the regular season — Hartford winning at home, 49-46, on Jan. 16 and Maine winning at home, 78-58, on Feb. 13. In the first game, Maine’s leading scorer, Blanca Millan, got in early foul trouble and was never a factor. In the second, Tanesha Sutton scored 24 to lead four players in double figures as Maine pulled away in the second half.

“We don’t want to get into a shootout with them. They shoot too well,” McNeill said of Maine’s league-leading 42.1 percent field-goal accuracy. “We will lose in a shootout. We’ve got to defend, not let them shoot and score off our defense.”

The Hawks are led by senior guard Lindsey Abed at 14.9 points per game (and a team-high 85 steals), followed by junior guard Sierra DaCosta (12.0 points, team-high 2.5 assists), forward Ella Awobajo (10.4 points, 4.4 rebounds), a transfer from Boston College, and sophomore guard Jade Young (8.9 points, team-high 5.7 rebounds).

The Black Bears are paced by junior forward/guard Millan, the America East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, at 17.6 points and a team-high 86 steals, followed by senior guard Sutton (14.7 points, 7.3 rebounds), senior guard Parise Rossignol (11.0 points), sophomore guard Dor Saar (9.2 points, 154 assists) and junior forward Fanny Wadling (6.4 points, 8.9 rebounds).

“We play pretty well together, we move the ball well,” Vachon said. “This is a fun team to watch, a fun team to coach.”