Six-time defending champion and No. 2 seed Albany held a 56-49 lead over sixth-seeded Hartford with less than three minutes to play Sunday.

“Unfortunately, we’re often in this position, digging ourselves out,” Hartford senior Janelle Harrison said. “So, this is familiar territory.”

Hartford came back with a 9-0 run to beat the Great Danes 58-56 in the second semifinal of the America East women’s basketball tournament at Cross Insurance Arena.

The Hawks’ reward is a trip to Bangor on Friday to play top-seeded Maine for the conference championship at Cross Insurance Center.

Although Hartford had a 9-7 conference record, Maine was the only America East team to sweep the Hawks, beating them 59-44 in Hartford, then edging them 59-56 in Bangor on Feb. 5.

In that second game, Hartford led by one point late in the game and had the ball. But the Hawks missed a shot, and Maine took the lead with 22 seconds left.

“We owe them one,” Harrison said. “And we’re going to go get it.

“When we come out focused and ready to go, we’re unstoppable.”

The Hawks use a high-pressure defense. They forced Maine into 28 turnovers in their second meeting, and on Sunday they forced Albany into 22 turnovers.

Hartford began February with a four-game losing streak, but has now won five straight.

“I credit the season with our nonconference schedule (including Villanova, Delaware, Syracuse and North Carolina),” Hartford Coach Kim McNeil said. “It really prepared us … kind of matured us.

“Maine’s tough. They’re a hard-nosed team and play really well together.”

THE PARISE ROSSIGNOL story continues to be a good one, as she came off the bench to score 28 points for Maine over two days in this tournament.

Rossignol, a junior from Van Buren who sat out last season, hit 10 of 15 shots in the two games, including 3 of 6 3-pointers.

“At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t super confident with (my shot), but my teammates and coaches tell me to keep shooting,” she said. “I’ve become more confident as the season’s gone on.”

ATHLETIC DIRECTOR Karlton Creech was in attendance but declined to be interviewed. Creech has one more week at Maine before he becomes athletic director at the University of Denver.

It is not known whether Creech will address two pending basketball coaching questions.

When Maine announced last week that Amy Vachon is the new head women’s basketball coach, the school did not clarify Richard Barron’s status. Barron, the women’s head coach who went on medical leave 13 months ago, is currently on temporary assignment in the athletic administration office.

Barron, whose coaching contract has two years and $325,000 remaining, has previously stated that he would “love to get back to coaching.”

On the men’s side, Maine Coach Bob Walsh just finished his fourth season of a four-year contract. The Black Bears are 24-100 under Walsh, including 6-26 this year. His future status is also unknown.

Creech will be working this week with Jim Settele, who will be Maine’s interim athletic director starting March 12.

CROWDS FOR THE tournament seemed larger than last year, although Sunday’s attendance for the semifinals was never disclosed (it appeared to be around 3,000). Total attendance for the first two sessions (two games apiece) on Saturday was 3,450.

Last year’s total attendance for all three sessions was 4,648.

Now that the two-year commitment in Portland is over, America East officials have not decided about the future.

“Year two has gone really well,” said Chad Dwyer, America East associate commissioner for championships. “We were interested how we would build on last year and we’ve seen that.

“We have a good partner in Shamrock (Sports and Entertainment of Portland) … We’re going to review and decide where we go from here.

“I think there is openness to coming back (to Portland), but it’s really undecided.”

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

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