By Greg Laudani, Staff Writer

UNH is set to begin its journey to being crowned champions of the America East tournament. The team’s first roadblock is the University of Hartford.

The Wildcats and Hawks open the tournament with a best-of-three quarterfinal series starting this Saturday at 7 p.m. at Binghamton University. If UNH beats Hartford, it would play the winner of the Maine-Binghamton game in the America East semifinals.

The Wildcats, however, are not looking that far ahead. Head coach Maureen Magarity said her team needs to zero-in its focus on Hartford because “anything can happen in March.”

It is safe to say the Wildcats had Hartford’s number during the regular season. UNH defeated the Hawks twice, with a 65-63 road win on Jan. 21 and 55-50 victory at Lundholm Gymnasium on Feb. 18.

Despite her team’s success against the Hawks this season, Wildcats’ standout Elizabeth Belanger said UNH is not about to get ahead of itself. The junior said her team is not thinking about a potential semifinal against the rival Maine Black Bears.

“We are taking it one game at a time, Hartford first,” Belanger said. “We need to take care of business against Hartford first.”

Magarity echoed Belanger’s “one game at a time” approach. Magarity said that anything can happen in the playoffs, and UNH cannot rest on its regular-season success against Hartford.

“Whatever happened in the regular season during conference play, the tournament is a fresh start for everybody,” Magarity said. “Especially being at a neutral site for the first two games, it’s an exciting time because I really think it’s up for grabs for anyone.”

While proud of her team for its two-game sweep of the Hawks this season, the Wildcats’ head coach said she expects a stern test against Hartford. She said UNH’s success could likely serve as the Hawks’ greatest motivation.

“We swept them this year, so I’m sure they weren’t too happy with that,” Magarity said. “They are definitely going to be coming out hot.”

UNH grabbed a win over Hartford on Jan. 21 while shooting 60 percent (9 for 15) from three-point range. But in their second victory on Feb. 18, the Wildcats did not hit a single shot from downtown. They did, however, dominate Hartford in points in the paint with a 38-24 edge.

Magarity said Hartford’s tendency to play zone defense has something to do with how her team has had to search for multiple ways to beat the Hawks.

“The second time we played them, I thought we moved the ball much better at that point,” Magarity said. “We had been zoned a lot just because we weren’t shooting the ball that well. So we were much more productive moving the ball, getting the ball inside and out with a lot of paint touches, and we finished.”

UNH’s leading scorer Elizabeth Belanger said being familiar with Hartford will aid her team’s preparation heading into Saturday’s game. Now with more at stake entering the postseason, Belanger emphasized that having six days between the team’s win over Maine and the quarterfinal will help the Wildcats get ready.

“We’re definitely going to try to do what we have done in the past two games and try to run though their offense as much as possible to get used to it,” Belanger said. “We’ve had a long time to prepare. Having a week of preparation will definitely help us.”

Belanger said her team is planning for the Hawks like it would for a regular season game.

“It just makes it easier to go through the same game routine we have done all season,” Belanger said.

A pair of seniors and a sophomore led Hartford’s scoring attack. Magarity spoke about the dangerousness of sophomore Deanna Mayza’s offensive ability. She leads Hartford in assists with 5.0 per game and ranks third on the team in scoring with 10.8 points per contest.

“They are a really solid team,” Magarity said. “They have a lot of different weapons. Mayza has hurt us most in the two times we’ve played them. They play at a high kind of pace offensively and take a lot of three-pointers.”

Senior Cherelle Moore leads the Hawks in scoring with 12.4 points per game, and also averages a team-high 7.3 rebounds. Moore scored 13 points against the Wildcats on Jan. 21, but added only six in a stating role on Feb. 18.

Magarity said UNH was able to limit Moore on Feb. 18 by using taller players like Kaylee Kilpatrick and Carlie Pogue to cover the senior in the paint.

“She’s kind of an undersized post, but she also has some size,” Magarity said. “So when we put a smaller post on her, she has been able to score over them. We have had a little more success putting a taller post like Kaylee or Carlie on her. But she’s quick, so she can go off the bounce.”

Hartford’s Amber Bepko, playing out her senior season, also poses a scoring threat in what could be her final weekend of collegiate basketball. Bepko ranks second on the squad in both points per game (12.2) and rebounds per contest (4.3).

“I think between Mayza and Bepko, they definitely have the green light to shoot at any time in the shot clock,” Magarity said.

The Wildcats were most effective when they were able to limit the number of open shots Mayza and Bepko took. Magarity said that strategy is a recipe for success for UNH to move on to the semifinals.

“I think for us defensively, the reason why we were successful the first two times we played them is because we kind of slowed them down and forced them to give the ball up a lot,” Magarity said.