By Glenn Jordan
March Madness begins this Friday for two local college basketball programs.
The University of Southern Maine and the University of New England earned berths in the 64-team field of the 2013 NCAA Division III Women's Basketball tournament.
Southern Maine (27-1) will host first- and second-round games Friday and Saturday for the first time since 2007. The Little East Conference champion Huskies, ranked ninth in one national poll and 12th in another, will play Smith College (22-4), which received one of 20 at-large berths.
The winner advances to Saturday's second-round game against either Ithaca (25-2) or Colby-Sawyer (23-5), who also play Friday in Gorham.
"Our team was very excited during the selection show (Monday afternoon) to learn that we'd be hosting for sure," said USM Coach Gary Fifield. "Our program certainly has a strong tradition of being in it, but we haven't hosted in a while."
UNE (22-4) won the Commonwealth Coast Conference and will travel to Amherst, Mass., to face Bridgewater State (23-3) Friday. The winner advances to play either host Amherst (26-1) or Farmingdale State (12-12) Saturday.
The national semifinals and finals are scheduled for March 15-16 at Hope College in Holland, Mich. Because USM and UNE were placed on different sides of the bracket, the only way they could meet would be in the final game.
Also, the Husson University men's basketball team earned an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III men's tournament. The North Atlantic Conference champion Eagles (20-8) take on Plattsburgh State (19-8) in New York on Saturday.
The winner advances to play at Amherst (25-2) – one of two teams to receive a bye in the field of 62 – on March 9. Quarterfinals and semifinals are scheduled for March 22-23 in Salem, Va. The championship game will be April 7 in Atlanta.
Fifield leads a USM team coming off its 20th conference championship and 21st regular-season title.
This marks the 26th time USM is participating in the NCAA tournament since joining the association 28 years ago.
Three USM starters played local high school basketball: Nicole Garland at Deering, Haley Jordan at Falmouth and Rebecca Knight at McAuley. Garland and Jordan recently shared honors for outstanding performer of the conference tournament, and all three – along with Jordan Grant of Concord, N.H. – average between 12 and 14 points per game.
Eight other players on the roster of 16 also call Maine home.
Fifield said Friday's doubleheader would begin at 5:30 p.m. with the game between Ithaca and Colby-Sawyer. The winners play Saturday night at 7.
The Huskies, whose only loss came at Western Connecticut in late January, lost first-round games the past two years. They have reached five Final Fours and three national finals. Fifield's tournament record is 44-23.
The Nor'easters, who qualified for the third time in four years, are riding a 19-game winning streak.
Senior Beth Suggs, a Morse High graduate from Bath, leads UNE with 14.4 points and 11.4 rebounds per game. Meghan Gribbin of Windham and McAuley grad Sadie DiPierro of South Portland lead the team in assists and 3-pointers, respectively. Both are freshmen.
Head coach Anthony Ewing, a Portland native, has seven Mainers on UNE's roster of 16.
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: