When the University of Maine beat Albany on Sunday, the Black Bears marked the occasion by cutting down the nets – an uncommon practice for a team winning a regular-season basketball title.

Celebrating too soon?

Junior guard Tanesha Sutton, one of the team leaders, made it clear the Black Bears have a bigger goal – to win the America East women’s basketball tournament and its automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“Right after the game, we all came together. We know we just got a great win, but we have more to go,” she said.

Their quest for the conference title begins Saturday. Top-seeded Maine (20-9, 13-3 in America East) plays the first of four quarterfinal games at the Cross Insurance Arena, at noon, against No. 8 Maryland-Baltimore County (5-25, 3-13).

The semifinals will be held Sunday. From there, the championship game will be on Friday, at the home court of the top remaining seed hosting.

If Maine can survive Saturday and Sunday, the Black Bears will host the title game at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

But being the No. 1 seed has no guarantees. Since 1998, Maine has been the top seed five times – 1999, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2015 – and won the tournament only once (2004). That was the Black Bears’ last championship, and its last trip to the NCAAs.

New Hampshire was No. 1 last year, only to lose to No. 4 Maine in the semifinals, 61-52. The Black Bears then lost in the title game, for a second straight year, at Albany, the six-time defending champions.

Parity was the buzzword for the conference this season. While Maine and Albany split their season series, the two powers lost to different teams during the year – the Black Bears to No. 3 Binghamton and No. 4 Stony Brook; Albany to No. 5 New Hampshire, No. 6 Hartford, and No. 7 Vermont.

“The season has been a warm-up for the conference tournament,” said Albany coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee.

Maryland-Baltimore County was predicted to finish fifth in the conference, but has underachieved. Maine beat the Retrievers twice in January, 64-50 in Baltimore (UMBC led after the first quarter) and 69-36 in Bangor.

Three of UMBC’s wins have come against last-place UMass-Lowell, including a 73-65 win in Wednesday’s play-in game. The Retrievers are led by 5-foot-8 senior guard Laura Castaldo, who is averaging 11.9 points per game.

If Maine wins Saturday, it will play at 2 p.m. Sunday, against the winner of Saturday’s quarterfinal between Stony Brook and New Hampshire.

MAINE WAS well-represented when America East honors were announced at the conference’s annual banquet on Friday evening.

Amy Vachon was named Coach of the Year. Freshman point guard Dor Saar was selected as Rookie of the Year and junior guard Parise Rossignol was picked as Sixth Player of the Year.

Sophomore guard Blanca Millan earned first-team All-Conference honors and junior guard Tanesha Sutton was selected to the second team. Sophomore forward Fanny Wadling was picked to the All-Academic team.

Other major honors went to Binghamton’s Imani Watkins (Player of the Year) and Alyssa James (Defensive Player of the Year). Albany’s Tiana-Jo Carter, a graduate of Lake Region High, was selected to the All-Defensive team.

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: @KevinThomasPPH

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