University of Maine players on the bench cheer after Anne Simon stole the ball for a basket toward the end of the first half of their game against Indiana on Nov. 30 in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The University of Maine women’s basketball team has cruised through America East play, winning its five conference games by an average of 23.2 points. The Black Bears (12-7) expect a much tougher challenge Thursday night at Albany (16-2), which is also 5-0 in America East.

“They’re a good team and so are we, so it should be a good game,” said Maine guard Anne Simon, who leads America East in scoring at 18.4 points per game.

As two of the top teams in the conference, the Black Bears and Great Danes have developed a rivalry, meeting in four of the last five conference tournaments. Albany defeated Maine in the semifinals last season and in the championship game in 2022. Maine earned semifinal wins over Albany in 2021 and 2019.

The Great Danes carry a 12-game win streak, which began after a 79-35 loss to fourth-ranked Stanford on Nov. 26. What stands out for Albany is the senior combination of center Kayla Cooper (16.6 points, 7.6 rebounds per game) and forward Helene Haegerstrand (10 points per game), said Maine Coach Amy Vachon. On Monday, Cooper was named America East Player of the Week after averaging 24 points and 10.5 rebounds in wins over UMass-Lowell and Bryant.

“They’ve played with each other a long time,” Vachon said. “Anytime they go on the court lately, they end up winning.”

As well as Cooper and Haegerstrand are playing for Albany, the Black Bears have the top one-two punch in the conference in Simon and forward Adrianna Smith (16.1 points, 10.9 rebounds per game), the last two winners of the conference Player of the Year. What’s made Maine even tougher to defend is its offensive depth. Caroline Bornemann scored a game-high 27 points Saturday in an 81-39 win over New Jersey Institute of Technology. Olivia Rockwood and Sarah Talon of Windham each scored 10 in a 76-47 victory against Maryland-Baltimore County.


“We have a great well-rounded team. No matter how you guard us, anyone can step up,” Smith said.

Albany leads the conference with an average of 67.7 points per game. Maine is second at 65.5, but what’s propelled the Black Bears to their 5-0 league start is defense. Maine has allowed just 45.8 points per game in conference play, with only New Hampshire reaching 50 points against the Black Bears in a 78-52 loss. Vachon said she’s pleased with the way her team has limited opponents to one shot per possession.

“I think it’s just communication (on defense) and the emphasis we’re putting on it,” Smith said.

Where the Black Bears need to improve is 3-point shooting, Vachon said. Maine leads the conference with 477 attempts – 107 more than second-place Bryant – but is making just 28.9% of them, sixth-best in the nine-team league. Vachon is also looking for the Black Bears to play a more complete 40 minutes.

“We’re just looking for consistency. It’s been better lately, but we’ve had games where we build a lead, then lose the lead,” Vachon said.

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