BIDDEFORD — After seeing Salve Regina hang around and hang around and hang around, the University of New England women’s basketball team knew it had to do two things down the stretch Thursday night ”“ play better defense, and get the ball to its best player.

The Nor’easters did both, and as a result, they’re one step away from back-to-back conference championships.

Trailing 44-40 to the fourth-seeded Seahawks with 8:40 to play, UNE clamped down on defense and Kelly Coleman scored eight of her team-high 20 points in the final eight minutes as the top-seeded Nor’easters gutted out a 59-49 victory in a Commonwealth Coast Conference semifinal at a jam-packed Harold Alfond Forum.

It was the 13th win in a row for UNE (25-2), which will go for a repeat title when it hosts second-seeded Roger Williams in the CCC championship game at 2 p.m. Saturday.

“Before every game we have keys that we try to live up to, and one of them was play with confidence,” Coleman said. “So at the end, this is our gym and we knew what was on the line, and we just played with more confidence at the end. I think that showed.”

Despite shooting just 29.4 percent from the field in the first half, Salve Regina (14-13) was kept in the game by first-team all-conference performer Meaghan Harden, who scored 15 points in the opening 20 minutes as the Seahawks trailed just 25-24 at the half.

Harden looked to be at it in the second half, scoring six quick points as Salve came back from a 30-24 deficit to tie the game at 33-33.

But a combination of Sadie DiPierro, Paige Dessureau, Lauren Hayden and Meghan Gribbin locked down on Harden after that, holding her to no points across a 12-minute span before she hit a harmless lay up with four seconds to go for the final points of the game.

“Harden lit us up in the first half, and she’s such a great player,” said Gribbin, who led the team with seven assists and drew two big charges in the second half. “We knew if we limited her enough down the stretch other people would have to step up, and fortunately our defense did a really goo job on her down the stretch.

“It was all about knowing what they like to do, and not letting them do it.”

“Meaghan Harden was having a great game up to that point, and I think we’d finally had enough of her abusing us,” added UNE coach Anthony Ewing. “I thought our defense a lot stingier.”

The Nor’easters have an all-conference first teamer of their own in Coleman, who made one of the biggest plays of the night with 7:35 to go when she drew the fourth foul on Marissa Pendergast, the Seahawks’ best interior player, who was forced to the bench.

Coleman hit both free throws to tie the game at 44-44, and by the time Pendergast had reentered, UNE held a 50-44 lead.

“There’s certain plays that allow me to post up inside, so we tried to run some of those to go at her,” Coleman said. “We know how to pull it together in close games and what we need to do to win. We just tried to stay as calm as we can and do all the little things.”

Coleman than salted the game away, hitting back-to-back driving left-handed lay ups to push UNE’s lead to 54-45 with 2:13 to play.

“Kelly was great down that stretch,” Ewing said. “We look for her in those instances and it didn’t hurt that the player guarding her had four fouls, but Kelly usually performs in those situations anyway.”

In addition to Coleman’s 20 points, freshman center Alicia Brown tallied a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Nor’easters. Brown also had three blocks, breaking the UNE single-season record of 51.

DiPierro and Gribbin also both chipped in seven points, while Brooke Flaherty added six and Lauren Hayden had four points in addition to pulling down 10 rebounds.

“This was a great team win tonight,” Coleman said. “Whether it was on defense or rebounding or hitting shots, everybody did something.”

The Nor’easters will now host Roger Williams, which topped Endicott 60-57 in Thursday’s other semifinal, in the final on Saturday.

The Hawks (22-5) handed UNE its only conference loss of the season 80-59 when the teams met on Jan. 20 in Bristol, R.I., but the Nor’easters got revenge in the rematch last Saturday, earning the regular-season conference title with a 65-50 win at Alfond.

This time the conference championship and an automatic berth into the Division III tournament will be on the line, and, according to Gribbin, that makes it all the better.

“In a weird way we kind of play better when there’s pressure,” Gribbin said. “We don’t want to lose more than we want to win sometimes, and when it’s down to the wire we just want it more and know how to close out close games like tonight.”

— Staff Writer Cameron Dunbar can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 323 or [email protected]

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