ALBANY, N.Y. — The University of Maine women’s basketball team jumped to a 14-4 lead midway through the first quarter Friday.

Good start for the Black Bears, who knew this America East championship game against Albany would be determined by defense.

And it was.

Albany recovered and played smothering defense the rest of the way, winning its sixth straight conference title by beating Maine 66-50 before 1,231 at the SEFCU Arena.

Albany (21-11) advanced to the NCAA tournament beginning next weekend and ended Maine’s season. The Black Bears finished with an 18-16 record.

Maine led 16-6 after the first quarter, then totaled 18 points over the next two quarters and trailed 49-34. The Great Danes applied pressure and Maine had no answer.

“Their zone (defense) was very extended and we did not do a good job of attacking it,” said senior guard Sigi Koizar, who led Maine with 14 points. But Koizar struggled, making five turnovers and shooting 5 of 16, including 1 of 6 from beyond the arc.

Maine shot 3 of 15 on 3-pointers. Albany was 6 of 15.

Fanny Wadling scored 13 points, giving the Black Bears their only solid presence in the post. Blanca Millan added 11 points and seven rebounds.

Imani Tate of Albany scored 21 points and was named the tournament MVP.

This was a rematch of last year’s title game that Albany won by one point. This time –with four new starters on each team – Maine could not keep up.

“We struggled to find offense,” said Maine associate head coach Amy Vachon, directing the team while head coach Richard Barron remains on medical leave.

Even though Maine led early, trouble began to show.

In Maine’s last eight possessions of the first quarter, it made one basket, missed two shots and committed five turnovers.

The Black Bears ended up with 24 turnovers to Albany’s 11. Those turnovers, and 12 offensive rebounds for Albany, were too much for Maine.

“We turned it over too many times and gave up too many offensive rebounds,” Vachon said. “They shot (18) shots more than us. Those are tough stats to overcome.”

Maine needed to play stifling defense, like it did in the first two rounds in Portland last weekend. The Black Bears held down two scoring threats – Bailey Hixson (five points) and Jessica Fequiere (three) – but others stepped up, including freshman point guard Mackenzie Trpcic (15 points, 4 of 8 3-pointers).

“It’s been a season where anyone can step up at any time,” Trpcic said. “Today, it was me and Imani.”

Tate worked off picks to get some open jumpers and then began driving for layups.

It was Trpcic’s 3-pointer in the second quarter that gave Albany its first lead – a nice comeback after being down 16-6.

“It was night-and-day the first and second quarter,” Albany Coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said. “There was no panic in our game.

“(Maine) came out of the gate hard and had nothing to lose. We played tight with everything to lose. Nerves calmed down and we played lockdown defense … we started to play more like us.”

Maine’s defensive plan worked for a while. Millan was keeping Tate in check early and the other threats were shut down.

“We did what we wanted to there,” Vachon said. “Tate got a little too much. And then Trpcic came to play.”

Offensively, the Black Bears looked lost. They didn’t shoot well outside and had trouble getting the ball in to Wadling. She took seven shots, making five.

Maine trailed 25-22 at halftime, but Albany showed too many threats.

The game ended an interesting year. On the court, the Black Bears incorporated eight freshmen – six of them regulars. Off the court, Maine and Vachon had to deal with Barron’s leave, which began Jan. 6.

“It’s tough,” Vachon said, becoming emotional as she spoke. “It’s been a hard year. I’m really proud of these kids.”

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

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Twitter: KevinThomasPPH