UMaine’s Tanesha Sutton looks to pass under pressure from Hartford during the America East championship game last week at Cross Insurance Center. Portland Press Herald photo by Ben McCanna

 

ORONO — When the question is asked, it elicits groans and head shakes from the University of Maine women’s basketball team.

What is it like to go against Tanesha Sutton in practice?

“I try to stay away from it,” said 6-foot-1 Fanny Wadling, who must battle the 5-10 Sutton for rebounds.

“She never gives up. It’s like the ball is hers and she never stops until she has it.”

Parise Rossignol, a 5-8 guard, is not a fan of opposing Sutton, Maine’s only other senior.

“I hate when she’s not on my team,” Rossignol said. “She’s so strong and she’s the toughest person on the team. She just works so hard.”

Sutton and the Black Bears (25-7) are back in the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive year. On Saturday afternoon they play a first-round game at North Carolina State (26-5), ranked 10th in the latest AP Top 25 poll. Maine will look to Sutton — a post player in a guard’s body — for inspiration and determination to pull off an upset.

Maine coach Amy Vachon has used several adjectives to describe Sutton during her three years playing for Maine, from “heart and soul” to “the rock.”

“We knew what a special player she could be,” Vachon said.

Vachon was in Philadelphia years ago when she watched Sutton, playing for Neumann-Goretti High School.

“She made an impact with every single play,” Vachon said. “I say it to this day: she was my favorite player I ever watched (while) recruiting. I fell in love watching her play.”

Maine recruited Sutton hard. She seemed to like her visit to Orono.

But when it came time to pick a school, Sutton opted to stay in Pennsylvania, going to Duquesne in Pittsburgh.

“It was closer to home,” Sutton said. “My mom was excited.”

The mood was not so upbeat in Orono when Sutton informed the Maine coaches.

“It was heartbreaking,” Vachon said.

“On the other hand, the elation of getting the call a year later, saying she was coming, was so exciting.”

In her freshman year, Sutton played sparingly at Duquesne. Sutton decided the school was not a good fit and gassed up the car and headed to Orono.

“It’s a 9-10 hour drive, eight hours on a good day,” Sutton said. “Once you start doing the same drive, it’s nothing.”

After sitting out a year — mandated by the NCAA for transfers — Sutton played for the Black Bears in 2016-17 as a redshirt sophomore, starting as a guard.

The next year, after graduations and transfers, Maine had few post players. Vachon moved Sutton underneath the basket.

“You want to put your best five players on the floor. We have a lot of really good guards,” Vachon said. “At first, it was hard (for Sutton). She didn’t necessarily love being down there. Through time, and through success, she’s come into it.

“The reality is she’s a guard. But she battles down there a lot.”

Sutton led the team in rebounding her junior year and scored 12.1 points a game. She hoped to go back to guard this year.

“I didn’t think I was going to be down there that long. But whatever the team needs,” she said.

This year, Sutton is second on the team in scoring (14.6) and rebounding (7.4), as well as in steals (51) and assists (81).

Maine was outrebounded in 50-26 in its 38-point loss at North Carolina State in December.

Wadling, who leads the Black Bears with nine rebounds per game, sat out that game after suffering a concussion earlier in the season. Her presence should help Maine on the boards Saturday, but the Black Bears will need an inspired — and physical — effort to defeat a team that has a 25-2 record when it outscores opponents in the paint.

They will look to Sutton, who pulled down 10 rebounds — five on the offensive boards — in the 84-46 loss to NC State.

“To have (Wadling) defensively this time around, it really is important for us,” Sutton said Friday at an NCAA press conference in Raleigh, North Carolina.

And, she added with a smile, “To know that we have someone taller than 5-foot-10 this time, that feels even better.”