The Central Maine Community College women’s basketball team after winning the USCAA championship Wednesday with a win over Villa Maria in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. The national championship is the Mustangs’ second in three years. Submitted photo

The Central Maine Community College Mustangs have made Penn State Fayette’s Erberly Campus, the host site of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) Division II championships, their home away from home the past three years.

When the Mustangs won their second national title in the last three years Wednesday with a 85-78 win over Villa Maria of Buffalo, New York, it was the ninth game at the Uniontown, Pennsylvania, school for senior forward Brooke Reynolds and junior forward Eraleena Gethers-Hairston, both Edward Little alums.  The duo finished their college careers with two national championships with eight wins and one loss in the national tournament.

Having rolled through a 33-point win over Davis in the quarterfinals and bounced back from a slow semifinal start to beat Penn State Lehigh Valley by a dozen, the Mustangs felt relaxed and confident going into their third consecutive national championship game.

“(Tournament experience) really helped us,” said Reynolds, who picked up her second tournament MVP award, having also won the honor when the Mustangs won the national title in 2017. “Me and ‘E,’ we’ve played probably the most amount of games on this court, besides the actual home team. So we were kind of familiar with the whole tournament and how everything goes and everything else.”

After guiding his team to its third consecutive Yankee Small College Conference title, CMCC coach Andrew Morong said he loosened up the reins more than he has in the past when the bus rolled in to Uniontown last weekend for what is normally a four- or five-day stay. He said he allowed his players more say in setting the schedule and the overall tone of their stay.

“The old CM teams, with the Susie Frenches and the Kristina Blaises, they always had this kind of sharks with blood in the water mentality,” he said. “This team is not like that, and I spent all year trying to make them like that. And on my ride down to Pennsylvania, I was just like, they’re not going to adapt at this point. I have to adapt and just let them be them.”

“We just kind of rolled with it a little more than we usually do, but that’s what this team needed,” he added. “It worked for them, obviously.”

The Mustangs had already proven themselves to their coach, but Morong knew they would still play with plenty of urgency and attitude.

“People don’t realize the late nights, the early mornings, the lifting sessions, the conditioning sessions, that these women do for, essentially, 11 months out of the year,” Morong said. “People think we just show up for practice and show up and play and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Our women just never get enough credit.”

“This year we felt disrespected all year, by everybody,” Morong said. “We just grew this little chip on our shoulder.”

The chip started with last year’s loss Johnson & Wales in the national championship, grew throughout the regular season right into the championship game, which the Mustangs entered as the No. 2 ranked team, behind No. 1 Villa Maria.

“It had nothing to do with winning another ring or getting another trophy with Brooke, who’s been a player with me since we were in the seventh grade,” Gethers-Hairston said. “It just had to do with us being us and everyone was cheering against us and no one wanted us to win. We didn’t drive 16 hours just to get to the game and lose.”

CMCC started the championship game like a team on a mission, turning up the pressure on a Villa Maria team that was riding a 24-game winning streak early and roaring out to a 35-16 lead at the end of the first quarter.

“I think it was our defense,” Morong said. “We hadn’t really been pressing too, too much. We’d been kind of backing off our defense here and there the last couple of weeks. We just wanted the pace of the game to be just blistering because (Villa Maria) don’t use a lot of girls. It was just good, old fashioned CM basketball — just go, go, go, 100 miles-an-hour, pedal to the metal, and do not stop or slow for anything.”

The Mustangs maintained the 19-point lead at halftime, then let Villa Maria do little more than chip away at the deficit through the third and most of the fourth quarter.

“This is their third time playing in this game, so they’ve been there and done that,” Morong said. “‘E’ (Gethers-Hariston) had some huge minutes for us in the third quarter, when we needed to give Jordyn (Reynolds) a break. We got contributions up and down (the roster), all tournament long.”

The final player to step up was sophomore guard Alex Bessey, a Spruce Mountain graduate who scored all 12 of her points in the fourth quarter, including a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws that turned a suddenly tenuous five-point lead into a much more comfortable 10-point cushion in the final minute.

“We’ve been in situations like that before,” Brooke Reynolds said. “Alex hitting that 3 just solidified the whole thing, that we were going to win.”

It wasn’t long into the postgame celebration before Reynolds and Gethers-Hairston noticed the second title felt quite different from the first.

“This one’s a little more bittersweet because it’s my last time playing basketball,” Reynolds said. “Both moments have different things that I remember, but this time is definitely a special one because it’s the last time.”

“It’s more emotional to me, because this is my last time playing as a CM Lady Mustang,” she said, “and I wouldn’t want to end it any other way.”

It almost wasn’t the last time for Gethers-Hairston, who nearly decided to forego her third season due to nagging injuries.

“Playing for Coach Morong was the best thing I could ever do for three years,” she said. “I stayed healthy and continued to work through the season and played my hardest. It makes all of the practices, all of the yelling, all of the sweating, all of that, it makes it so much worth it.”

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