There’s one way for the University of Maine women’s basketball team to reach that elusive promised land known as the NCAA tournament – with defense.

Maine (18-15) will have to shut down Albany (20-11) in the America East championship game Friday.

Tip-off is at 4:30 p.m., with the winner getting an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. It will be a rematch of last year’s title game won by Albany, 59-58.

The Black Bears, who reached six straight NCAA tournaments from 1995 to 2000, have not been back since 2004. Albany has won the past five conference titles.

“They have the championship pedigree so they have that expectation,” said Maine associate head coach Amy Vachon, who knows something about pedigree, having played on four Maine NCAA tourney teams.

Not only do the Great Danes strut with experience, but they are playing at home.

“It gets loud,” said Maine sophomore guard Tanesha Sutton, who was ineligible last year after transferring from Duquesne but still made the trip to Albany with the Black Bears.

Albany plays well at home – 12-1 this year, with the only loss to Maryland-Baltimore County. Meanwhile, the Black Bears have struggled on the road (3-12).

The teams split during the regular season, each winning at home.

“Playing on their home court is tough,” Vachon said. “That being said, I’m excited about it. I think we have a great shot.”

Vachon’s confidence stems from a return to the Black Bears’ bread-and-butter defense, the matchup zone.

Maine had played man-to-man all season, first under head coach Richard Barron, and then under Vachon, who took over in early January when Barron went on an indefinite medical leave. Vachon said the crammed conference schedule left no time to implement the matchup zone until the end of the regular season.

In the opening two rounds of the conference tournament, Maine’s defense dominated. The Black Bears held Binghamton to 31 percent shooting and forced 24 turnovers. Then, in a semifinal upset of top-seeded New Hampshire, Maine held the Wildcats to 30.5 percent shooting, forcing 19 turnovers.

Both times, Maine focused on the opponents’ top scorers.

Binghamton guard Imani Watkins shot 3 of 14 with seven turnovers. UNH center Carlie Pogue, the America East player of the year, shot 4 of 11.

Albany, which was second in the conference in scoring (66.6 points a game) and first in field-goal percentage (41.8), may present the biggest challenge.

“They have a lot of weapons,” Vachon said. Her matchup zone will either put one defender on one player or use a series of defenders.

Here are Albany’s top three threats and how Maine might try to stop them:

n Imani Tate, 5-foot-8 senior guard, all-conference, 19.1-point average. She can drive, pull up for jumpers and occasionally hit a 3-pointer (22 this season). Maine’s top defender, 5-11 freshman guard Blanca Millan, will cover her. Instinct, a long reach and quick hands are Millan’s forte. She held Binghamton’s Watkins to seven points. Millan will likely give up 3-point attempts and keep Tate from driving.

But Millan won’t keep Tate from trash talking. “She talks the whole game,” Millan said. “You have to be prepared for that.

n Bailey Hixson, 6-1 senior guard. She can get crazy hot from the 3-point arc. She made 52 3-pointers this year, including 6 of 11 in Albany’s semifinal win over Hartford.

Maine’s 6-3 freshman, Anita Kelava, another player with a long reach, could be fronting her often, with help to keep her from driving. Sutton also may get involved.

n Jessica Fequiere, 5-11 junior guard. A versatile player, Fequiere can hit the 3-pointer (40 of 128 this year) and rebound (10 in the semifinals). Sutton seems a good matchup.

Albany is also strong on the boards, leading the league in offensive rebounds with 15.2 a game.

Albany starts one post player, 6-2 Heather Forster, but everyone gets in on the rebounding. Tiana-Jo Carter, a 6-2 junior from Naples and Lake Region High, comes off the bench.

“They like to rebound, crash and transition,” Sutton said, “so the key is to not let them do what they do best.”

Offensively, Maine needs to work the ball to the hot hand. Usually, that’s senior guard Sigi Koizar driving. But others, including Millan, can hit 3-pointers. Kelava can be deadly with her jump shot.

Inside, Kelava and 6-1 freshman Fanny Wadling will start. Their improved play has had 6-2 freshman Laia Sole sitting on the bench more. But Sole is still capable of coming in and changing the game.

The Black Bears will have to work for their points. But to win this game and reach the NCAAs, Maine must make the Great Danes work much harder for theirs.

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinThomasPPH