GORHAM — The University of Southern Maine women’s basketball team has every intention of keeping alive its strong tradition.

The Huskies took a big step in that direction Tuesday night.

The third-seeded Huskies survived an early scare and defeated No. 6 UMass-Dartmouth 64-54 in the first round of the Little East Conference women’s basketball tournament.

”This was a good game for us,” said co-captain Haley Johnson. ”We definitely want to take it all the way, but we have to take it one game at a time. We did that starting today.”

Southern Maine (19-7) will continue its quest for a second straight conference championship and 14th in 15 years Friday night in a semifinal against second-seeded Eastern Connecticut State. The teams split the regular-season series, USM winning on Saturday, 58-57.

”We have a great rivalry between the two schools,” said Southern Maine Coach Gary Fifield. ”It’s USM and Eastern Connecticut always at the top, so it will be a battle. We know what we have to do, so we are going to see if we can do it.”

The Huskies once again relied on the play of forwards Curran Leighton and Johnson to beat UMass-Dartmouth. Leighton scored 21 points and pulled down 18 rebounds, and Johnson added 15 points and 12 rebounds. Leighton also recorded six assists and four blocks.

”It’s the Leighton and Johnson factor on the inside,” said Corsairs Coach Amanda Van Voorhis, ”and they proved once again to be a force. (We didn’t) want to let them touch the ball. It was a huge key to the game and we failed to do it.”

Paced by Johnson’s eight straight points to open the game, the Huskies jumped out to an 11-0 lead. But the Corsairs (10-16) quickly responded with a 13-2 run to tie the game.

Stephanie Houtman scored the Corsairs’ first field goal 5 minutes in, a 3-pointer that cut the deficit to nine.

The Huskies had turnovers on their next three possessions while the Corsairs’ offense continued to roll. Kaylin Nelson scored five of the next nine points for the Corsairs, who tied the game, 13-13, just 5 minutes after scoring their first point.

Southern Maine bounced back, getting a 3-pointer from Kaylie DeMillo (12 points) and a short jumper by Courtney Cochran. From there, the Huskies regained control and went into halftime up, 33-21.

”When we would execute our stuff, we got good shots,” said Fifield. ”But when we stopped running our stuff and were just freelancing, we didn’t get good shots.”

”To get back control was big, but even after that, it always seemed that the game was on edge. (We) just never put enough stops together to put them away. They just kept hanging and hanging.”

The Corsairs continued to hang around in the second half. An early 8-0 run in which Lynley DeAmato scored six points drew them within six.

Johnson had a three-point play, but Houtman hit a 3-pointer to keep the Corsairs within striking distance.

But the Huskies regained a comfortable 15-point lead aided by six points from Leighton and a 3-pointer from Nicole Paradis.