Even though Albany was the favorite in a preseason poll of America East women’s basketball coaches, there were doubts. The Great Danes seemed to be rebuilding after winning five straight conference championships, and they had a new coach, Joanna Bernabei-McNamee.

Then Albany began its conference schedule at 2-3, including an 84-71 loss at Maine. The Great Danes were figuring out who they were.

“I definitely think that,” Bernabei-McNamee said. And us, as a staff, getting to know the conference … I think we’re coming along at the right time.

Albany, which won 10 of its last 11 games in the regular season – including a 64-60 home victory against Maine – is in prime position for title No. 6. The Great Danes will host Maine at 4:30 p.m. Friday for the America East championship. The winner will earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Albany, seeded No. 2, reached the title game with a 67-65 semifinal win over Hartford at Cross Insurance Arena, as a last-second 3-pointer was off the mark.

Bailey Hixson led Albany with 22 points, including six 3-pointers. All-conference guard Imani Tate scored 12 points.

“This means a lot because a lot of people doubted us,” Tate said. “Now we’re back where we left off.”

Maine was only 2-6 on the road in conference games, but Bernabei-McNamee knows the young Black Bears can be dangerous.

“When we voted for the all-rookie team, all their players I could have put on that list because they just have a plethora of great freshmen,” Bernabei-McNamee said.

Maine will be seeking its first conference title since the Heather Ernest-led Black Bears beat Boston University in 2004.

PORTLAND WAS the tournament host for the first time, and a total of 4,684 fans attended the three sessions (two games apiece), including 1,847 on Sunday. That’s the second-highest total in the last five years.

America East officials seemed pleased with their first try at holding the tournament at a neutral site.

“We liked the rich history of support for basketball in the state of Maine,” America East Commissioner Amy Huchthausen said. “It was important to get to a community that would come out and support a sport, and not just a particular team … I think we’ve seen that this weekend.”

Huchthausen liked the attendance numbers, but would like to see bigger crowds next year, when the tournament comes back to Cross Insurance Arena.

“I’m very pleased,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to get in a first year … There are certainly things we can learn from and improve on, and that just sets up for a good second year.

“We had a good crowd, but there are still empty seats. The first year, you’re so much focused on the operational side as well as the marketing … Now we can dedicate even more time on the marketing side, to hopefully increase the attendance next year.”

Huchthausen said the arena was “a perfect-sized facility; not too big and not too small.”

MAINE’S ZONE DEFENSE is what has made the Black Bears a force in this tournament. They’ve only been practicing it for two weeks.

“We have a zone defense we’ve historically played the last few years,” Maine associate head coach Amy Vachon said. “The way our (conference) schedule was set up, we didn’t have a lot of time to work on it. So we just played man.

“(Near the end of the season) “we had a bye, so we really had two weeks of practice, with just one game in between. We were really able to work on the zone defense.”

MAINE HEAD COACH Richard Barron, who has been out two months on medical leave and has not been heard from, sent out a tweet after the game: “Very proud … one more to go.”

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

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