SOUTH PORTLAND — Before even playing its first game this season, the men’s basketball team at Central Maine Community College knew this season could be one to remember.
The Mustangs proved themselves right Sunday afternoon.
CMCC claimed the Yankee Small College Conference title and earned a trip to the USCAA National Championships at Penn State Fayette beginning March 4. The Mustangs took the early lead Sunday and fought off the College of St. Joseph for a 90-68 win at Southern Maine Community College.
“This is a special team,” CMCC coach Dave Gonyea said. “Our goal at the beginning was to get to the nationals, and that’s where we’re going.”
It is the first time for CMCC in the national tourney since winning the YSCC in 2010.
“It’s a good family environment to be around,” guard Shaun Hill said. “We took 15 guys from all over Maine and everywhere. We put it all together. It was an experiment that ultimately landed us where we are now. We knew we were going to win it from day one. We had the same goal in mind and when 15 guys have the same goal in mind, you can accomplish anything.”
Hill led the Mustangs (30-2) with 29 points and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Jimmy Pina added 12 while CMCC got eight points each from Kazre Cummings, Luis Medina, Jalen Lincoln and Tim Flanagan.
“We played the last two games and we didn’t play very well,” Gonyea said. “We needed to play like we did in the regular season, and that’s what we did.”
The Mustangs swept the Fighting Saints in two regular-season games but got a battle from them Sunday. CMCC just proved too good and too deep.
“We like to send waves of kids,” Gonyea said. “You have to keep up with our pressure for 40 minutes. Most teams can’t stand 40 minutes. We can go 10, 11 or 12 and we’re not hurt at all on the bench.”
CMCC led most of the game. The Fighting Saints (15-13) made occasional runs. Michael Bowlers led the Fighting Saints with 19 while Ramel Anderson added 12.
“We had to play CM basketball,” Hill said. “We had to just stick to what we do best. When we do what we do best, there’s no stopping us.”
With the game tied 12-12 in the first half, CMCC pulled ahead with nine straight points. Devantee Briggs scored back-to-back hoops and then Hill drilled a 3. After two Pina free throws, the Mustangs were up 22-14.
The Fighting Saints went on a run of its own and tied the game at 27-27 with a 13-5 spurt. Bowlers and Anderson led the charge with four points apiece.
The game would be tied three more times but the Mustangs finished the half strong. An 11-2 finish made it 49-38 at the break. After a Hill 3, Medina converted a steal and then hit a jumper. Lincoln scored off a steal and Cummings sank a pair from the line.
The Mustangs opened the second half playing just as well. CMCC scored five straight to open the lead up to 54-41. After a Lincoln free throw, Flanagan and Pina scored.
“We just like to use 15 guys and run them out of gas,” said Hill. “If they make a run, they can only extend a run for so long until we sub out five more guys and take it over again.”
The Fighting Saints made one more try at a rally. An 11-2 surge, paced by five points from Bowlers, cut the lead to 56-51 with 14:30 left in the game.
CMCC answered with a basket by Briggs and a Pina bucket off a Medina pass. A three-point play by Bowlers made it 62-56, but that was as close as the Fighting Saints would get the rest of the way. CMCC used a 13-2 run that pushed the lead to 80-59 with 5:27 left. Xaiver Colbert had a pair of baskets and Chris Semedo and Hill each hit 3’s to open the lead for good.
“It’s sweet because we’ve got fantastic kids,” Gonyea said. “They work really hard. They’re passionate and emotional. They just love to play.”