It is the cruelest divide in college sports, and the Maine women’s basketball team finds itself – barely – on the wrong side of it.

A hard-fought 59-58 loss at Albany on Friday in the America East Conference title game cost the Black Bears and their eight seniors a chance to experience March Madness, the signature event of the college athletic calendar.

Instead, it will be a second consecutive appearance in the WNIT, which amounts to a pat on the head for a team with much higher aspirations.

“Just to get to this point is not something that any of us in that locker room are happy hearing right now because we believe that we can do better and that we missed an opportunity, and so there’s disappointment for us in that,” Maine Coach Richard Barron said after his team pushed top-seeded Albany as far as any opponent had in its five-year reign atop America East.

Maine’s record stands at 26-8, and that’s 22 victories more than it achieved three seasons ago, when this incredible journey began for the senior class.

The university has put in a bid, at a cost of $6,500, to host a first-round game in the WNIT, which would give local fans one more chance to salute a group of athletes who have turned a dormant program into contenders again.

Still, there was a great sense of loss when the Black Bears strode off of the court at SEFCU Arena, their heads held justifiably high. Not just for Friday’s game, which had enough shifts in momentum to give the 1,519 fans whiplash, but for a season and an era.

This shaped up to be the year for Maine, the one that would return it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 12 Marches. Barron certainly coached it that way, shortening his bench so that it was the seniors – plus brilliant junior guard Sigi Koizar – who got all of the playing time. The five underclassmen would have to wait their turn, only making brief appearances at the end of blowouts.

So much faith did Barron have in those seniors that he even deferred to them when it came to putting in the defensive game plan for Friday’s matchup. The Black Bears wanted to play man-to-man against the Great Danes and star forward Shereesha Richards, and so they did, for better or worse. Richards finished with 31 points, and guarding the 6-foot-1 three-time league player of the year proved so problematic that Maine’s Liz Wood fouled out and Mikaela Gustafsson had to sit for six minutes in the second half with four fouls.

“You let up for a second or you let her get one inch on you, then she’s going to be in position,” said Wood, who had 10 points and six rebounds in 28 minutes. “I know I didn’t do a great job, so that’s disappointing.”

There’s that word again.

It’s easy in the aftermath of such a narrow loss in the biggest game of the season to look back for missed chances. They’re easy to find. The Black Bears missed six free throws, and made only 10-of-29 field-goal attempts in the second half. Koizar and Mikaela Gustafsson had shots in the final three seconds that might have produced a win.

But that would be to overlook how many terrific plays Maine made just to make it such a memorable game. There was an 11-0 run to end the first half that included baskets by Bella Swan, Gustafsson, Chantel Charles and a 3-point swish from Koizar. Wood made a 3-pointer to give the Black Bears their largest advantage of the fourth quarter at 45-40.

After Albany (27-4) fought back to finally regain the lead midway through the period, Lauren Bodine and Koizar again nailed clutch 3s to keep the pressure on the Danes, who have been unaccustomed to having to handle tense championship games. Thanks largely to Richards, Albany survived.

This may have been the high-water mark for a Black Bears program that was barely afloat when Barron took over five years ago. Certainly, next season looks to be Koizar surrounded by a lot of question marks. Barron’s contract is up for renewal by the end of June.

The future will sort itself out. Wood, an exemplary student-athlete, was left to try to sum up what had just transpired. She spoke of Friday’s near-miss, but also of an incredible career.

“I think it’s hard to put all of the emotions of what we’ve been through these past four years (into words). Like how hard we’ve worked, and the disappointment of today. But I think I’m just thankful, if I would have to use one word, just for the experience,” said Wood, a Virginia native.

“I’m really proud to be a part of Maine and just have that support. … We’re a family and it’s been a lot of fun playing basketball with them.”

Maine will find out late Monday evening whether it will host a WNIT game and who its opponent will be. Whatever happens in that tournament, though, will feel like an anticlimax.