AUBURN – Last year’s journey to the USCAA Division II men’s basketball tournament admittedly was a vacation of sorts for Central Maine Community College.
Today’s bus ride to Uniontown, Pa., is the start of what the Mustangs plan as a four-day business trip.
Winner of 11 straight games and champion of the Yankee Small College Conference, No. 3 CMCC (17-6) will meet the University of Cincinnati Clermont at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the quarterfinals.
CMCC won a first-round game last March before falling to second-seeded Penn State-Beaver in the quarters. Armed with five third-year players who experienced the intimidating jump from regional to national competition, the Mustangs enter the fray with less trepidation and more swagger this go-round.
“The biggest thing I realized was when they went to the bench immediately, you’d think they wouldn’t be the same, and they’re just as good as the starters,” said CMCC sophomore center Matt Lyons of Rumford.
It’s the ninth trip to nationals for CMCC and the Mustangs’ second straight after missing out on the showcase for three consecutive seasons.
CMCC hosted and won the tournament in 2001-02. Coach Dave Gonyea, who has guided the Mustangs to each of its national bids, sees striking and encouraging parallels between that squad and this year’s contender.
“One of the major similarities is that team snuck under the radar. This team will, too,” Gonyea said. “We’ll go down there and people will think, ‘Aw, c’mon, how good can they be? We have a prime-time player in Tyler Smithgall, a terrific shooter in Cam Angell and a very good point guard in Matt Sceviour. That team had all of those things.”
Central Maine’s previous banner year also boasted a blue-collar commitment to full-court defense.
These Mustangs admit that last year’s club didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, exhibit that quality.
“We have five guys that go in off the bench and all they do is press,” said Angell, a Leavitt Area High School graduate. “I don’t know if we ever pressed last year. We brought in some new people that are more dedicated to defense than they are offense. With depth, you can work a lot harder on defense and not have to save all your energy. You know you can get a break and don’t have to play the whole game.”
Smithgall is the centerpiece at the offensive end.
The Winthrop product erupted for 31 points in the Yankee semifinals. Smithgall chalked up 17 points, seven assists and five rebounds in a 75-72 win over New Hampshire Technical Institute in the title game.
“Our conference tournament the way it went here was just a real eye-opener to everyone out there,” Smithgall said. “Experience is going to be a big factor. (Clerrmont is) just like us really. Maybe a little more athletic, but we always play athletic teams and we rely on fundamentals.”
Freshmen Mark Truss, Nick Hinkley and Eric Goodwin have allowed the Mustangs to apply constant pressure against opposing guards.
That leads to transition, which produces uncontested shots for dead-eye shooters Angell, Bronson Drewry and others in the open floor.
CMCC will need that versatility against a Clermont team that flaunts a pair of 6-foot-9 players in the paint. The Ohio school likely would be seeded higher if not for a flurry of forfeited games due to an eligibility issue early in the season.
“Teams in the tournament are a lot more physical and faster,” Sceviour said. “Not really a step above us, but they play with a higher intensity level than we’re used to every day.”
The Mustangs raised $12,000 for the trip through private donations.
If CMCC wins the opener, either PSU-Beaver or World Harvest Bible awaits in the semifinals.
“Last year we went and we had a good time, but we got beat in the second round and thought we could do better. With pretty much everybody back, we think we can,” Angell said
“This is the culmination of six months of hard work. This isn’t like high school. Every night since start of school, they’ve been in this gym or lifting weights. It’s brutal,” added Gonyea. “This group went down there, got that experience. We stayed in the nice hotel, and now we’ve been there and done that. Now let’s go for the basketball.”