BIDDEFORD – After suffering a season-ending knee injury just nine minutes into her junior year at the University of New England, all Katie Diggins wanted was to have a nice finish to her career. She got it.

The Nor’easters are one of five Maine teams that made it to the NCAA Division III women’s basketball tournament, which begins this weekend. Bowdoin and Colby will be sites of first- and second-round games.

UNE (23-5) will play at Bowdoin at 5 p.m. Friday against Western Connecticut State (22-5). The Polar Bears (20-6) play Baruch (23-5) of New York City at 7 p.m. in the second game.

Colby (23-4) will host Husson (19-8) at 7 p.m. Friday preceded by a 5 p.m. game between Emmanuel (22-5) and Babson (25-3).

And the University of Southern Maine (20-8) received its 16th consecutive NCAA bid and will travel to Amherst, Mass., for a 4 p.m. game Friday against Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (17-10). Top-ranked and undefeated Amherst (27-0) will play Massachusetts College in the other game, at 6 p.m.

Colby, USM and Bowdoin received at-large bids. The Mules and Huskies each lost in their conference championship games.

UNE won the Commonwealth Coast Conference title while Husson, which has 16 straight victories, won the North Atlantic Conference title.

“We’re all very excited,” said UNE Coach Anthony Ewing as the Nor’easters head to the NCAAs for the first time since 2001. “This is a fun time. This is what you work for.”

And dream about.

“It’s a storybook ending,” said Diggins, UNE’s lone senior. “It really makes that six months of (knee surgery) recovery all worth it. I got a picture today of me holding our trophy with the net on, and I’m sending it to my (physical therapy) office next week. It’s really the icing on the cake, for sure.”

UNE began the season among the conference favorites. Now the Nor’easters say there’s little pressure on them.

“I really feel that the pressure is almost off us,” said Diggins, a forward from Merrimack, N.H. “In our conference, everyone expected us to win. Now that we’re out of the conference, no one expects us to win.”

“This is what we wanted to do this year,” said Margo Russell, a sophomore forward from Madison. “We set a goal and we worked hard and knew what we had to do to get here.”

An NCAA berth was especially gratifying for USM, considering the team has suffered through injuries and illness, at one point down to nine healthy players.

“We kept it together with Band-Aids,” said Coach Gary Fifield. “But as I said to the team after the championship game (loss to Western Connecticut), teams become stronger when they have to deal with adversity; they find their character.”

USM won at least 20 games for the 30th consecutive season. “Most teams would be happy with our record,” said Fifield. “I think the kids felt some pressure at the end of the year to get to 20 wins. It’s a big deal.”

Fifield said senior forward Haley Johnson had a strong season, especially with her leadership, but added the Huskies were built on teamwork.

“I went through our roster and could point to every kid on the team that, at some point, they were a key factor in us winning a game,” said Fifield.

Coach Adrienne Shibles of Bowdoin also said her team’s balance carried the Polar Bears to their 10th consecutive NCAA berth.

“On any given night, it could be a different person that steps up and (is) our leading scorer or leading rebounder,” she said. “I think we have really good senior leadership and I think our schedule prepared us well for this moment.”

Senior captains Caitlin Hynes, Sabrina Cote and Leah Rubega provided the leadership. “They did a great job of keeping this team focused,” said Shibles.

Colby is making its first NCAA appearance and, like New England Small College Athletic Conference rival Bowdoin, played a tough schedule.

“Half of our league made the (NCAA tournament),” said Coach Lori McBride. “That speaks to the competitiveness of our league and how hard we had to battle every night.”

Senior guard Samantha Allen of Naples (Lake Region) and freshman guard Diana Manduca of Portland (Deering) played pivotal roles for the Mules.

McBride said the team was driven to become one of Maine’s top programs this year. Colby improved from six wins to nine, 13, 23 and an NCAA appearance in the last four years.

“We wanted to be part of that conversation,” she said, “because there is such good basketball played here in Maine. To be part of that group is really exciting.”

Only one Maine men’s team advanced to the D-III tournament. The University of Maine at Farmington, with Deering’s Eric Lelansky and Gorham’s Josh Tanguay and Andrew Dean, won the North Atlantic Conference title and will play at Bridgewater State at 7 p.m. Thursday. It’s the Beavers’ first NCAA selection.

 

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: [email protected]