The Maine women’s basketball team has spent the past two seasons chasing this opponent and this moment.

Albany has been the standard-bearer in America East, the winner of the past four conference championship games. Senior forward Shereesha Richards is the most dominant player the conference has seen since Cindy Blodgett became a Black Bear legend from 1994-98. The Great Danes have a 16-game winning streak at home and have won their past 13 conference tournament games.

And still Maine enters Friday’s conference final on equal footing. Yes, it’s the first time in 12 years that the Black Bears have advanced this far – one win from a spot in the NCAA tournament – but they were the last team to win at SEFCU Arena in Guilderland, New York, doing so last season. And they are on a 14-game winning streak that includes a 65-53 home win over the Danes on Feb. 14.

“I think our kids ought to feel good about what we’ve accomplished,” Maine Coach Richard Barron said. “We’ve got all the momentum right now.”

Both teams have 26 wins and finished 15-1 in league play. Albany gets to host the title game, televised on ESPNU at 4:30 p.m., by virtue of having a better RPI – a formula that rates NCAA teams on wins and strength of schedule. What those TV viewers will see is the best rivalry in America East, this time with the highest stakes possible.

For Maine’s eight-player senior class, it’s the culmination of a remarkable turnaround after that group suffered through a 4-24 freshman season. By last year the Black Bears served notice they were a serious challenger to Albany’s throne, knocking off the Great Danes on Super Bowl Sunday and finishing 14-2 in the conference to tie for first. But that winter ended in disappointment when the Black Bears were upset by Hartford in the conference semifinals, missing a chance to host Albany in the final. Instead it was the Danes dancing to a fourth straight NCAA tournament while the Black Bears settled for the WNIT.

The teams split again this year, each winning at home. The difference was defense. In Albany’s 64-59 victory on Jan. 16, Richards muscled up 23 shots and finished with 34 points. In the Valentine’s Day rematch, she managed only eight shots and eight points as the Black Bears did a better job of clamping down. Maine is third in the nation in scoring defense, surrendering just 49.7 points per game.

“We were just really locked in defensively the whole game,” said Maine senior forward Bella Swan. “I think communication was the biggest thing for us, just knowing where she was at all times.

“She’s very good but I think if we keep our defense how it was last game, just locked in, it should be good.”

Richards averages 23.5 points per game and the Danes have the league’s top offense at 71.4 points. The 53 points in Bangor was a season low.

Barron, who is happy to have to game-plan for Richards for the final time, said the key is to keep her from catching the ball near the basket, and to do so without being called for fouls. In the first meeting with Albany, Swan fouled out. In the second game, Maine center Mikaela Gustafsson did so. How the game is officiated will be pivotal.

“The majority of her points are right under the rim. She’s athletic and she creates contact,” Barron said. “She’s got a real slick move where she gets her lead arm up underneath you and then pulls up through your arms to try and draw fouls. And she’s strong enough that she can still make it even if the foul isn’t called.”

Offensively, Maine must not get flustered by Albany’s extended trapping style of play. Breaking the press is one thing, attacking it another. In Bangor the Black Bears burned the Danes with 13-of-23 shooting from the 3-point arc. They committed only 12 turnovers.

Point guard Sigi Koizar, Maine’s junior star at 17.6 points and 3.9 assists per game, must be at her best. She is quick enough to make Albany pay whenever it sends two defenders at her.

“We’ve got to turn the pressure against them with cutting and moving the ball,” Koizar said.

“The seniors have really worked very hard for us to win this championship. That’s their last chance to do it, so I’ve got to take care of the ball and shoot the ball.”