AUBURN — The Central Maine Community College Mustangs men’s basketball team’s season was apparently over Feb. 21 when they lost to the University of Maine at Machias 75-70 in the Yankee Small College Conference Elite Eight Tournament Championship game.

It was the Clippers who would be moving onto the United States Collegiate Athletic Association Division II National Championships on the campus of Penn State Fayette in Uniontown, Penn.

But Mustangs coach Dave Gonyea found out a few days later CMCC was one of the six at-large bids. Certainly the Mustangs’ 21-9 overall record was good enough for one of the at-large selections, but there was one problem — it’s against CMCC school policy for a team to go to a national tournament as an at-large selection.

End story?

Nope!

The Mustangs left for Uniontown on Sunday and will be taking the court Wednesday night in a first round game as the No. 10 seed against hosts Penn State Fayette at 6 p.m.

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Why are they going when it’s against school policy? It wasn’t for Mustangs’ 21-9 record, but it helped their cause. It’s what they have done off the court and in the school community.

“I think what happened is this team captured the hearts of the school,” Gonyea said. “They are great in the classroom. They are great living here. They are great representatives of the college. The faculty likes them. The staff likes them; the kids all like them.

“I think they have made a major impact on everybody. Everyone saw how hard they worked and how much they gave. They said: ‘You know something we will make an exception this year.’ I think everyone said, ‘Yeah, we are.'”

There has been a precedent where a team went to the USCAA Tournament as an at-large bid nearly a decade ago when the women’s team won the YSCC Championship and the men’s team earned an at-large berth. The school decided to send the men’s team along with the women’s team.

With the 2015-16 Mustangs having new life and one more week together, they look to prove more people wrong.

“We have a great group of kids who worked really hard and who really overachieved,” Gonyea said. “We don’t have the talent as past years, but they have worked together, played together and put a nice streak at the end of the season here. We went into the Yankee tournament not sure what was going to happen.

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“We did pretty well there. We are going into this tournament as the tenth seed and we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. I just want the kids to get that experience.”

To win the National Championship, they will have to win four games in four days. Gonyea, who will be making his 11th appearance as the Mustangs coach, knows he has to manage his roster through the duration of the tournament to keep legs fresh. He has been doing that all season.

The team has one player with USCAA Tournament experience in leading scorer Carrington Miller who’s the lone junior on the roster. He was on the Mustangs team two years ago that entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed. They lost to Penn State Beaver in the quarterfinals.

Miller, who is the team’s leading scorer averaging 18.9 points and nearly 10 rebounds a game, will bring the tournament experience to the young Mustangs.

“This year, we have a totally different group of guys. I think it’s a lot more special this year, especially for me since I am a leader on this team,” Carrington Miller said. “I have a bigger part on the team, and it’s just a close group of guys who are going to enjoy the experience this year.”

Gonyea believes having a guy who’s a little older than the rest of his teammates will help as most of the teams, which have 20 and 21 year olds on their roster compared to CMCC — a team composed fresh faces out of high school.

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The other player who makes the engine go for CMCC is Rob Skinner who’s averaging 14.5 points a contest. The sophomore believes the team will embrace the underdog role.

“A lot of people didn’t expect much from us since we didn’t have a lot of two year players, we have lot of freshman,” Skinner said. “We were kind of counted out from the beginning to finish as the second seed (in the YSCC Tournament) and made the championship game. We fell a little bit short, but we still overachieved a lot. The best part about it, in our minds, we knew we should have been there.”

There will be familiar opponents for the Mustangs in Pennsylvania. Not only Maine-Machias will be making the trip down, but fellow YSCC rival, the University of Maine at Presque Isle, will be there as another at-large team.

The earliest the Mustangs will see either of those teams is in the semifinals as Presque Isle is in the other play-in game and Machias has a quarterfinal game against Warren Wilson on Thursday. CMCC won both regular-season games against Machias before dropping the conference final and lost both games against Presque Isle.

“There’s definitely apart of me that wants to go down there and do better than them,” Miller said. “We lost Machias in the conference tournament and personally I think we are a better team than them.

“So them going down there and I think them getting blown out in the first round would be nice. Presque Isle beat us twice in the regular season and I also think we are a better team than them. So I think we can go down there and prove we are the best Maine team for sure.”

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