The University of New Hampshire, a team with experience and a tendency to win close games, grabbed a 37-36 lead after three quarters in an America East women’s basketball semifinal Sunday.

The younger and underdog Maine Black Bears seemed ready to back down, especially with the Wildcats starting the fourth quarter with the ball.

But when UNH tried to pass inside to its money player, Carlie Pogue, Maine freshman Anita Kelava tipped the ball away for a steal. Later, freshmen Fanny Wadling and Blanca Millan made clutch plays.

These Black Bears are growing up quickly, and they took charge late in a 61-52 win over top-seeded New Hampshire at Cross Insurance Arena.

Fourth-seeded Maine (18-15) advances to the conference title game at 4:30 p.m. Friday at No. 2 seed Albany. It’s a rematch of last year’s title game, also in Albany, won by the Great Danes, 59-58. The teams split two games this season, each winning on its home court.

New Hampshire is 26-5 and likely headed to the Women’s Invitational Tournament.

The freshmen helped Maine knock off the Wildcats, but it was senior Sigi Koizar who led the Black Bears with 21 points. Millan added 11 and Kelava finished with eight. Wadling recorded seven points and seven rebounds. Tanesha Sutton, an elder as a redshirt sophomore, scored eight points.

UNH was the only conference team Maine did not beat during the season – the Black Bears lost 50-44 in January and 65-57 last month in Bangor.

“We went back over the film and figured it out,” Koizar said.

To beat the Wildcats, Maine needed to stop Pogue, a 6-foot-2 forward and conference player of the year, and 6-2 Kat Fogarty, while stopping penetration by the guards. It was asking a lot.

“I can’t say enough about these kids,” said Maine associate head coach Amy Vachon, in her third month directing the team while head coach Richard Barron is on medical leave.

“I know I use the word a lot, but I am so proud of them. We had an hour and 15-minute shoot-around this morning and we watched film last night. We put in a game plan that we wanted them to execute, and they did it to a T … They really made New Hampshire work for everything they got.”

The plan began with preventing passes inside to Pogue – “the kid is a great player,” Vachon said – and Fogarty, and then pressuring the guards.

“They clogged up the middle a lot,” said Fogarty. “It was hard for Carlie, Ashley (Storey) and I to get touches.”

Maine used a matchup zone defense – after playing man-to-man all year – and doubled-teamed Pogue underneath. She scored 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting. Only one of her baskets came on a pass inside. Fogarty scored eight points on 2-for-9 shooting, and the Wildcats shot only 31 percent and committed 19 turnovers – 14 by the guards.

“We needed to take care of the ball better,” said UNH senior guard Kristen Anderson of Greene. “We needed more movement. We took a lot of tough shots at the end of the shot clock, which we forced ourselves into.”

Maine shot 36 percent and made nine turnovers. Most telling was points in the paint. UNH scored 13 points inside, Maine tallied 22.

But the Black Bears trailed to start the fourth quarter. Then they held UNH to one basket on its first nine possessions and began the quarter with a 13-2 run, for a 49-39 lead with 4:11 left.

Wadling put back a rebound during that surge, and Sutton hit two free throws and drove in for a basket after a perfect pass from Kelava. Sutton also rebounded a Hartford miss, drove the court and fed Millan for a layup.

“We were just being aggressive,” Sutton said. “Me cutting to the basket was just being aggressive.

“And getting the rebound and looking out, I knew they couldn’t stop us in transition.”

Hartford closed to within 50-46 with 1:15 left. Then Koizar hit two free throws and UNH missed two shots, with Sutton rebounding the second. Koizar clinched the victory with more free throws.

“It was a tough day for us,” UNH Coach Maureen Magarity said. “Kudos to Maine. They had a great game plan.”

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

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