Amy Vachon has felt this enthusiasm before, the pride that Maine basketball fans take when a local team is playing on a national stage.

For four years, the Augusta native helped the University of Maine dominate the America East Conference, earning spots in the NCAA Tournament each March. Vachon was the point guard when the Black Bears upset Stanford in the 1999 tournament.

The fan fervor that built up around those teams is a cherished memory for Vachon. And she’s living it again this year as a Black Bears assistant coach.

UMaine (26-7) plays at top-seeded University at Albany (26-4) on Friday for the America East championship, the first time in 12 years that the Black Bears have advanced this far. The winner of the 4:30 p.m. game, televised nationally on ESPNU, earns a berth in the NCAA Tournament. UMaine has played in the NCAA Tournament seven times, most recently in 2004.

“You’ve got to win to go. It’s exciting to be in that position,” Vachon said. “You grow up watching March Madness and now you’re really in the championship with a chance, and that’s all you can ask for.” Fans are again taking notice. UMaine led the league with an average of 2,077 spectators at its games in the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. That was five times what New Hampshire drew, for example.

FANS AT GAME, ON SOCIAL MEDIA

For Friday’s game, the university offered a fan bus, and more than 30 people loaded up Thursday to make the trip south. Many more are expected to drive down Friday, joining the pep band in providing some splashes of blue among the purple-clad home crowd.

“I think it makes us more excited to play because we want to play in front of our fans,” said Parise Rossignol, UMaine’s sophomore guard from Van Buren. “They’ve been part of this journey. They’re just as big a part of it as we are, for real.”

The pomp surrounding the tournament is even greater than it was in Vachon’s playing days, from 1996-2000, when NCAA appearances were the norm. Games weren’t televised nationally back then, although she recalls most of them being made available statewide in Maine. There also was no outpouring of appreciation on social media.

“It’s fun to see posts from people all over the country, all over the world, who are following it,” Vachon said. “Not that they weren’t back when I played, but it wasn’t out there like it is now.”

TEAMS SPLIT PAST FOUR GAMES

Albany is shooting for an unprecedented fifth consecutive conference title. The Great Danes, behind three-time player of the year Shereesha Richards, have rarely been challenged atop America East in recent years. But the Black Bears, winners of only four games just three years ago, have been rising the last two seasons under head coach Richard Barron. The teams have split their past four meetings, with UMaine winning most recently in Bangor on Feb. 14, 65-53.

The Great Danes have the conference’s best offense. The Black Bears counter with the league’s stingiest defense. Their only losses in America East this year came against each other.

“I think they’re confident. They should be,” Vachon said of the Black Bears team that includes eight seniors. “We’ve beat Albany. They’ve worked for it and they’re ready for it, so I’m excited to see what they do on Friday.”