The first task for the University of Maine women’s basketball players last week was to rediscover the joy in their sport.

The Black Bears lost to Hartford, 65-54, in the America East Conference semifinals on March 8, missing out on a chance to advance to the NCAA Tournament. They had March 9 off and returned to practice the next day.

“It was hard to just come back in the gym and start playing basketball. You think about (the loss) again,” said Maine center Anna Heise. “It should hurt, so it did. But Coach (Richard Barron) wants us to loosen up a little bit, just play without thinking too much. We run a lot of plays. We were so focused on the plays and we forgot to just play basketball.”

It will be a rejuvenated Maine team that visits Villanova on Friday in the opening round of the WNIT. The Black Bears earned their way into that tournament for the first time since 2005 by winning their conference regular-season title.

“We get another chance,” Heise said. “We still had a really good season. We shouldn’t forget that.”

Maine (23-8) won 14 consecutive games in January and February, holding opponents below 60 points in each. But that defense has been shaky in the three games since, two of them losses, allowing an average of 65.7 points. And it will be tested again by the Wildcats (19-13) of the Big East Conference.

Villanova leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.78 and has made 35.2 percent of its whopping 817 3-point attempts. Junior guard Caroline Coyer averages 13.5 points per game, but the bigger concern for Maine may be 6-foot-2 senior center Emily Leer, who scores 12.1 per game. Maine has been chewed up by opposing post players in its two recent losses. New Hampshire freshman Carlie Pogue scored 20 points in the regular-season finale, and Hartford’s Cherelle Moore had 23.

Maine guard Sophie Weckstrom said the team could sense toward the end of the season that its defense was slipping.

“We got away with a few wins that we didn’t play very well,” she said. “We knew we had to do something, but it’s hard to change in the moment. This time off has been good for us to get back to what we do well.”

Villanova Coach Harry Perretta, in his 37th season at the Philadelphia school, employs an offense similar in style to Maine’s, emphasizing motion and spreading the floor with five players who can shoot. He is concerned about the Black Bears’ ability to do the same.

“I would rather play a team that has one or two kids that you don’t have to guard. We have had more success against teams like that,” Perretta said.

He compared Maine to Creighton of the Big East, a team Villanova swept, but only by a combined 12-point margin.

“It makes for a competitive, clean type of game,” Perretta said.

Villanova started the season 3-7 while dealing with injuries, so it didn’t have high hopes of an NCAA berth, Perretta said. The Wildcats fell to DePaul in the conference semifinal March 9, and then waited to learn if it would be an at-large selection in the WNIT.

He said it’s unlikely his team will take Maine lightly, pointing to a 72-49 loss early in the season to Sacred Heart, one of only two that Villanova suffered this season at The Pavilion.

“We understand how good these teams from smaller conferences are,” said Perretta, a longtime friend of Barron’s. “If we don’t, all we have to do is think back to that Sacred Heart game, and that should remind us.”

In that game, Sacred Heart made 13 of 23 3-pointers, a potential weakness that Maine would be happy to exploit. The Black Bears aren’t as proficient as Villanova from the arc, shooting 30.9 percent and averaging 6.7 makes per game, but are capable of getting hot from long-range.

Weckstrom leads the team with 48 3-pointers, twice making five in a game.

“I think I’ve just been focusing more on, let’s say I miss a shot, to not hang my head. I feel like I’ve been playing a little bit more loose,” Weckstrom said. “I have a feeling that Coach believes in me, and he gives me trust.”