- Associated Press - Friday, March 10, 2017

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - When the shots weren’t falling for the University at Albany at the outset of the biggest game of the season, the new coach stood patiently on the sideline awaiting a spark.

Senior Imani Tate delivered it, scoring a game-high 21 points, and the Great Danes beat Maine 66-50 on Friday to win the America East Tournament title for a record sixth straight time and again earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s my job to stay calm,” said Albany’s Joanna Bernabei-McNamee, the first head coach in league history to win the title in her inaugural season. “Hopefully, they stay calm. We came out a little tight until our nerves calmed down.”

Bernabei-McNamee replaced Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, who transformed the Albany program into a perennial champion before leaving a year ago to coach at Central Florida.

Another title with another coach was pretty sweet.

“I couldn’t be more happy. There’s definitely a sense of relief,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “There’s also pride. We still felt like we were going to win, maintain what these players started. There was no panic in our team. I’m the coach, but it’s about them. They came together from the beginning.”

Fourth-seeded Maine (18-16), which lost here to Albany 59-58 in last year’s title game, was seeking its eighth trip to the NCAA Tournament and first since 2004. The Black Bears, one of the youngest teams in the country, started three freshmen.

“They probably played like freshmen,” interim head coach Amy Vachon said. “That’s to be expected. That’s a challenge for us.”

Freshman Mackenzie Trpcic had 15 points, six assists and one turnover and Heather Forster had 10 points for Albany (21-11), the second seed.

Tate (1,722 points) and Maine’s Sigi Koizar (1,657) entered the game as the top two active scorers in the conference. Koizar finished with 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting and had five of Maine’s 24 turnovers, which the Great Danes turned into 26 points. Fanny Wadling had 13 points and Blanca Millan 11 for the Black Bears.

Albany got this one again on its home court, but the start was forgettable. Maine dominated the first quarter as the Great Danes struggled to find any open space, shot 3 of 17 and trailed 16-6 as every Maine starter scored.

The Great Danes rallied with a 6-0 run to start the second as Tate came alive after a 1-for-5 start and the Black Bears suddenly went cold. Tate, the league’s leading scorer (19.1), scored seven points in the quarter as the Great Danes surged to the lead and never relinquished it. Maine was 1 of 11 in the period and trailed 25-22 at halftime.

“I had to step up,” Tate said. “You have your mistakes, but you make up for them.”

Leading by a basket to start the third period, Albany quickly built a 10-point lead. A 3 from the right wing by Trpcic and a putback by Forster gave the Great Danes a 35-24 lead at 6:58. Tate’s runner off the glass boosted the lead to 49-32 in the final minute of the third and Maine trailed by double digits the rest of the game.

Tate took over. The kid’s a great player,” Vachon said. “That’s what champions do when it comes down to it. We want to be back here and we want to win. It stinks when you lose, but they’ve experienced this, and now hopefully it’ll be motivation.”

Maine held regular-season champion New Hampshire, the league leader in field-goal percentage at 41.8 percent shooting, to just 30.6 in winning their semifinal matchup. Albany shot 44.6 percent (29 of 65) and had just 11 turnovers.

BIG PICTURE

Maine: Started three freshmen - Anita Kelava, Wadling, and Millan - who combined for 28 points. … In Maine’s regular-season win over Albany, Millan had a career-high 26 points, including five 3s. … Became just the third No. 4 seed to upset the No. 1 seed. The Black Bears used a big fourth-quarter run to beat top-seeded New Hampshire 61-52 in the semifinals to reach its record 17th championship game.

Albany: Its six straight championship game appearance ties Maine (1995-2000) for the longest streak in conference history. … Has won 17 straight America East tournament games, the longest streak in conference history. … Tate was named the tournament most valuable player.

UP NEXT

Maine’s season is over.

Albany finds out its opponent and where it will play its first game in the NCAA Tournament when the field is announced on Monday.

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More AP college basketball: www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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Follow Kekis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Greek1947

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