Shortly after the University of Maine women’s basketball team lost in the America East title game last March, the Black Bears’ roster collapsed.

Not only was MVP guard Sigi Koizar graduating, but four players from Maine’s stellar freshmen class announced they were leaving for other programs.

A Portland Press Herald story from March 23, 2017, began: The promising future of the University of Maine women’s basketball team is now in doubt.

Fellow America East Conference coaches thought so. In a preseason poll last fall, they predicted Maine would finish sixth out of nine teams.

“If I’m looking outside-in, I’m probably thinking the same thing,” said Maine interim head coach Amy Vachon. “I don’t blame the coaches … but I knew what we had.”

What Maine had was a core of four returning regulars and a few surprising additions.

“We knew how good we were,” said redshirt junior Tanesha Sutton, a returning starter. “We didn’t care about the rankings.”

Apparently.

The Black Bears enter the America East tournament in Portland this weekend as the No. 1 seed, having finished first in the standings with a 13-3 league record, 20-9 overall. The conference winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“Amy has done an unbelievable job with them this year,” said Joanna Bernabei-McNamee, coach of the defending league champion, Albany. “Their players really stepped up.”

And Vachon stepped up, continuing to direct the program while Richard Barron remains on medical leave.

The Black Bears are America East’s top defensive team (56.2 points per game) and second in the league in scoring (65.7 points).

So, how did this Maine team emerge from uncertain to No. 1 status?

“It’s been a process,” Vachon said. “By no means were we entering the season with an empty cupboard.”

The core returning players included:

n Sutton, a 5-foot-10 guard who must play forward. She averages 12 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, along with a team-leading 3.0 assists.

n Blanca Millan , a 6-foot-1 guard who is third in the league in scoring (17.7 points) and first in steals (3.1 average).

n Julie Brosseau , a shooting guard who is averaging 11.5 points with a team-leading 64 3-pointers.

n Fanny Wadling, a 6-foot-1 forward who is a key defender under the basket and the only regular post player returning from last season. Wadling is spelled by 6-2 senior forward Kirsten Johnson, who is a regular for the first time, averaging 15 minutes a game.

The two biggest additions are 5-6 freshman point guard Dor Saar from Israel, and 5-8 junior guard Parise Rossignol, who returned after taking a season off.

Barron, who expanded Maine’s recruiting overseas, took interest in Saar years ago. She dished out a career-high nine assists in Maine’s 74-69 overtime win over Albany on Sunday, and four times has received America East Rookie of the Week honors.

“The kid is a true point guard,” said Vachon, who played point guard on four Maine teams that advanced to the NCAA tournament.

“Dor directs the offense. She knows where the ball needs to go. Sometimes, she doesn’t score, but she has a great shot.

“With Dor coming in, I knew the pieces that we had – it was how were they going to buy into each other. When I saw them doing that, I just knew it could be a special year. And it has been.”

Vachon still needed depth and gladly welcomed Rossignol back – although her contribution was uncertain. Rossignol, from Van Buren where she scored 2,589 career points in high school, played little in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

Now she is the first guard off the bench, averaging 21 minutes and 4.6 points per game.

“I’m so proud of her,” Vachon said. “Talk about a story. She’s a good one.”

Rossignol said she left the team for personal reasons. “I wasn’t having fun,” she said.

“Last year was hard not playing. When I got the opportunity (to come back), I couldn’t say no. I was in a much better place. I stopped putting pressure on myself. My confidence is back. You take a year off, you appreciate the game and the small window of time you have to play.”

Rossignol returned with determination to be a complete player. “I wanted to be known as more than a shooter,” she said.

But Rossignol, who hit two 3-pointers against Albany, shut down the Great Danes’ best player, Jessica Fequiere, in the second half Sunday.

Vachon employed more players during the season but, down the stretch, has concentrated on the top seven.

Maine will need to win two games this weekend – quarterfinals are Saturday and semifinals on Sunday – to bring the conference championship game to Bangor on March 9.

Few expected these Black Bears to have a chance, but they believe in themselves.

“We knew what we could bring every game,” Brosseau said.

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

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Twitter: @KevinThomasPPH