WEST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Vermont built an 18-point halftime lead, and then hung on to win its second consecutive America East title.
Courtney Pilypaitis scored 20 points as the Catamounts earned a berth in the NCAA tournament Saturday night with a 55-50 upset win over Hartford (No. 19 ESPN/USA Today, No. 21 AP).
"We knew they'd come back," Vermont coach Sharon Dawley said. "But that's what leads are for. When we were up by 18, no way did I think we were going to win by 18 or more. It was just, 'Good, we have a cushion, because when they come back, we'll be OK."
Alissa Sheftic added 10 points and eight rebounds for the Catamounts (26-6), who have won 10 of their last 11 games. Vermont's only loss in that string came to Hawks in the regular-season finale, 61-51 on Feb. 27.
But Hartford had to play this one without senior leader Erica Beverly, who suffered a season-ending tear to the ACL in her right knee in a semifinal win over Stony Brook. Diana Delva had 18 points for Hartford (27-4), which had won 20 games in a row, and went undefeated through the conference's regular season.
Without the 6-foot Beverly in the lineup Vermont had its way underneath, building an 18-point halftime lead, during which they outrebounded Hartford 23-12. They ended the game with a 43-34 rebounding advantage. Pilypaitis led the way with nine rebounds.
"It's been a while since we've been outrebounded," Hartford coach Jen Rizzotti said. "But when you have 1,006 rebounds sitting on your bench. ... But I told the kids, that's not the excuse. It's got to come from somewhere, and I thought we just didn't really have that toughness."
Vermont used an 18-1 run to turn an early 9-6 deficit into a 27-10 lead with just under 6 minutes left in the first half. The Hawks were held to just a free throw for 9 minutes and went over 10 1/2 minutes without a field goal. They hit just four of their first 16 shots from the field.
May Kotsopoulos hit a 3-pointer from the left baseline at the halftime buzzer to give the Catamounts a 35-17 lead at halftime.
"I think we just said to ourselves to lock down defensively, and once we did that, it just turned into great offense," said Pilypaitis. "We kind of got away from that in the second half."
The Hawks turned up the defense in the second half, holding Vermont to 18 percent shooting after intermission. Hartford used an 11-2 run to cut an 18-point second half deficit to 42-33 with under 12 minutes left.
After Vermont pushed the lead back to 14, Delva led the Hawks on a 15-4 run. She blocked two shots and then converted a 3-point play at the other end with 4:21 left that cut the lead to 51-46.
Delva had six of Hartford's 11 blocked shots, which set a record for the championship game.
A layup by Jenna Peterson cut it to 3 points, but Pilypaitis responded with a 3-point shot with 2 minutes left that brought it back to six.
Hartford's Jackie Smith hit a pair of free throws with 26.6 seconds left to cut it to 54-50 and Alex Hall missed a 3-point shot that would have made it a 1-point game with 7 seconds left. Sofia Iwobi hit a free throw for Vermont's final point.
Beverly, who averaged nine points and seven rebounds a game, had 14 points when the teams met on Jan. 26 and 13 in the season finale, both Hartford wins.
Vermont's win gave the Catamounts a sweep of the men's and women's America East tournaments, the first time a single school has won both since 1988.
"Shortly after their game, we got texts from the men's team saying, 'OK, now you guys, it's your turn,'" Dawley said. "So, we really felt like we had to finish the job for our school and our program."
The loss snapped Hartford's 20-game winning streak, which was the fourth longest in the nation behind Princeton (21), Nebraska (30), and Connecticut's record 72-game run.
Rizzotti said she's hopeful the injury and a five-point loss to another tournament team, won't hurt the Hawk's NCAA seeding.
"The kids did what they had to do to be in the NCAA tournament," she said. "Where we're seeded can't be a worry. How we perform and going out on our terms, going out the way we want, not playing below our standards and being disappointed, that's more important to me now."
The game was the first final between the conference's top two seeds since 2000, and the 55th meeting between the two schools.
Hartford came in having won four of the last five meetings, losing last year to the Catamounts in the tournament semifinals. The Hawks swept the regular season series, winning 38-36 in Burlington on Jan. 26 and 61-51 in Hartford on Feb 27.