University of Maine senior point guard Dor Saar calls out a play during a game earlier this season at Hartford. Saar and the Black Bears will meet Stony Brook in the America East championship game on Friday in Orono. Courtesy of University of Maine athletics

Maine and Stony Brook were supposed to square off at this time last year to determine the America East women’s basketball conference championship.

Then, two days before the game, the coronavirus pandemic was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. In a flurry of hours, sports came to a crashing halt. By March 12, the NCAA canceled all winter championships.

Maine had already bused to Connecticut and taken a ferry to Long Island, New York, when it got word the 2020 America East title game would not be played.

“Last year I remember we were so ready and we were really excited for the championship game,” said Maine senior point guard Dor Saar. “It’s still sort of a chip on our shoulder.”

Now Maine and Stony Brook have returned to the same juncture, but in a different locale.

On Friday at 5 p.m., one year to the day since their 2019-20 season was canceled, the No. 1 Black Bears (17-2) will host No. 2 Stony Brook (14-5) for the 2021 America East championship and the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.

Last season Stony Brook was 28-3, and favored as the home seed. Maine (18-14) was on a 10-game win streak.

“It’s been a long journey,” said Stony Brook Coach Caroline McCombs in a postgame media conference after her team’s 75-55 semifinal win against UMass-Lowell on Sunday. “It’s not on our home floor but we did all the little things, all the work, to have an opportunity to play in this championship game.”

Maine advanced with an equally impressive 67-47 semifinal win against Albany on Sunday.

In Tuesday’s media Zoom chat, Black Bears Coach Amy Vachon said it’s fitting that Maine and Stony Brook have returned to the America East title game.

“Both teams were ready to win a championship and play for a championship and that got taken away,” she said.

Saar said Maine and Stony Brook have been “the best two teams the last two years.” Both seasons the teams split two regular-season games. None was decided by more than five points.

This season Maine, which went 13-2 in conference play, won the regular-season tile in large part because it rallied from nine points down in the fourth quarter to win at Stony Brook, 54-49, on Feb. 14, a night after losing to the Seawolves, 59-54. Stony Brook finished 11-3 in the conference.

“We knew we could not lose that game,” said Maine senior guard Blanca Millán, the team’s leading scorer. “We kept saying (in the fourth quarter) that we were going to win that game. ‘Get a stop. Score.’ That’s all we kept saying.”

As has been the case all season at the University of Maine and at many other schools across the country, there will be no fans attending Friday’s game at Memorial Gym in Orono because of pandemic safety protocols

Friday’s winner will advance to an NCAA tournament that will be held entirely in Texas, centered in San Antonio. To be eligible to participate, all players, coaches and other Tier 1 support staff must document seven consecutive negative COVID-19. Once on site, they will all be tested daily and will not be allowed direct contact with the few fans, family members and media that will be allowed for opening round contests.

That does not lessen the players’ desire to participate in March Madness.

“It means so much to me and my teammates, even the transfers that came,” said Stony Brook junior guard Anastasia Warren in Sunday’s postgame media conference. “We want this so much for each other. Especially because (of) what happened last year. We’re just working really hard because we know how much this means to each other.”

Stony Brook reloaded this season with three transfers, including point guard Asiah Dingle, a quick 5-foot-4 penetrating point guard who leads Stony Brook in scoring (11.2 points) and assists (3.5 per game). Dingle averaged 12 and 13 points in two seasons at Kent State. According to multiple reports, a major factor in her decision to transfer was to be closer to her native Boston because her father had suffered repeated strokes. Maurice Dingle died Nov. 25, his daughter hearing the news minutes after scoring 22 points in her Stony Brook debut.

“I know every team probably has, but we’ve worked so hard, been through so much. Not even basketball, just life and sacrificed so much this year. It’s only right we bring it home,” Dingle told The Enterprise of Brockton, Massachusetts, prior to the America East semifinal.

Maine has benefited this year from the return of Millán and fellow fifth-year senior Fanny Wadling. Millán missed most of last season with a major knee injury. Wadling was out the whole year because of a concussion.

Millán led America East in eight statistical categories, including her 21.7 scoring average, and became the first player in conference history to be named Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year twice. Wadling is a poised passer and strong rebounder off the bench. Maine is also stronger because sophomore Anne Simon and senior forward Maeve Carroll, forced to carry a greater load in 2019-20, are now proven and dependable secondary scorers.

“I think this year we’re a different team. I think we come with more confidence,” Saar said. “Last year we were more of an underdog and this year we’re the team that won the regular season. This year is a great chance to play the game and win the championship.”


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