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America East: Will Maine end its hiatus from big dance?

The America East Championship is going to be one of the hardest-fought tournaments in all of NCAA Division I, but ultimately it is the Maine Black Bears who have the most to lose.

Courtesy of Maine Athletics

The America East Conference Championship Tournament is here, and it might be the hottest thing going in the frozen tundra called the North Atlantic Coast.

While the no. 1 Maine Black Bears (20-9, 13-3 American East) ran roughshod over the conference, they did just survive a close overtime game against the no. 2 Albany Great Danes to close out the season. And to add to the pressure, the Black Bears haven’t had a date to the Big Dance since 2004.

So are the Black Bears a lock to win the conference championship and cash in their ticket to the big dance? Let's see who wins it all our America East Championship preview.

FIRST ROUND

#9 UMASS LOWELL (4-25, 1-15) vs. #8 UMBC (4-25, 3-13)

This first round match-up of the two lowest seeds may already be decided. The only statistics in which UMass Lowell beat their opponents were in rebounding (by a super slim margin - 0.1 a game) and turnovers (by nearly six a game - 20.6 to 14.8), not very encouraging numbers for a team that has bigger ambitions. To top it off, the River Hawks lost to UMBC by a combined 34 points in their two meetings this season, including a 61-39 embarrassment at home in the regular season finale. Barring a miracle, we should be expecting the higher seed to take the win and face Maine.

WINNER: #8 UMBC

QUARTERFINALS

#1 MAINE (20-9, 13-3) VS #8 UMBC

Considering that the Black Bears went through the season with a first-year interim coach (Amy Vachon, who was named interim coach shortly after the 2016-17 season), they performed exceptionally well, only losing two home games all season en route to the regular season title.

Add the fact that they beat their opponents in nearly every offensive and defensive statistic, plus their total ownage of the season series against the Retrievers (they outscored UMBC by 47), and it’s pretty clear who’s walking out of this one with their head held high.

WINNER: #1 MAINE

#4 STONY BROOK (18-11, 10-6) VS #5 NEW HAMPSHIRE (18-11, 9-7)

The quarterfinal matchup between the no. 4 Seawolves and no. 5 Wildcats should be a fun, intense one considering how close they played each other during the season (both games were decided by a total of seven points). The defense will be a deciding factor (each team only averages around 23 field goals a game), but I’m going with the team who has four double-digit scorers compared to the team with two. Game, set, New Hampshire.

WINNER: #5 NEW HAMPSHIRE

#2 ALBANY (23-6, 12-4) VS #7 VERMONT (8-21, 5-11)

Truth be told, this game isn’t as much a lock for the Great Danes as people want to believe. In their first meeting with the Catamounts, Albany won by 12. In the second meeting, they lost by five. However, Vermont has also lost its last five games in a row and are 2-11 away from home. And, I know that Great Danes are trusty animals; I’ve never heard of a catamount.

WINNER: #2 ALBANY

#3 BINGHAMTON (19-10, 10-6) VS #6 HARTFORD (17-12, 9-7)

If we were basing it off of mascots, a Bearcat looks more menacing than a Hawk...but we’re not. And Binghamton definitely doesn’t play as menacing as their team name, considering they lost to Hartford in the season finale by 16 (it wasn’t as close as the score suggests; Hartford took the lead midway through the first and never relinquished it) after winning by five in the first meeting at home. I’m calling for the 3-6 upset.

WINNER: #6 HARTFORD

SEMIFINALS

#1 MAINE VS #5 NEW HAMPSHIRE

The season series between these two teams weren’t even close, with Maine winning by 43 points. I’m a firm believer in the saying “anything’s possible”, but a Wildcat victory over the Black Bears is like asking me to believe that Steph Curry isn’t the best three-point shooter to ever walk the Earth. It’s not happening.

WINNER: #1 MAINE

#2 ALBANY VS #6 HARTFORD

These two teams might end up with the most captivating game in the tournament. Not only did they split the season series, but each team won by double digits. Am I allowed to pick a tie like in wrestling? No? Ok. I’m going with Albany, since the last time these two met, Hartford couldn’t find a basket if they bought one.

WINNER: #2 ALBANY

AMERICA EAST CHAMPIONSHIP

#1 MAINE VS #2 ALBANY

This definitely won’t be the Ronda Rousey/Amanda Nunes-type matchup fans were expecting by the time they get to the championship game. But whoever wins this game, it will be because they earned it. And I don’t see Maine getting this far just to lose out on their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004. Ladies and gentlemen, meet your winner, and America East champions: The Maine Black Bears.

The first-round game starts at 6 p.m. EST on ESPN3.