The Central Maine Community College women’s basketball team secured its fourth consecutive trip to the USCAA national championship game with an 80-62 win over Villa Maria on Tuesday in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

Kristen Huntress led the Mustangs (27-3) with 23 points and Natalie Thurber added 19 points. Norvonee Hall led Villa Maria (19-6) with 15 points and 15 rebounds.

CMCC trailed 29-23 at halftime but exploded for 29 points in the third quarter to turn the six-point deficit into a six-point lead heading into the fourth quarter. The Mustangs then pulled away with an 11-0 run in the middle of the fourth quarter.

CMCC shot 51.4 percent from the floor in the second half, making half of its shots from beyond the 3-point arc.

“The message at halftime was we weren’t guaranteed tomorrow,” Huntress said. “And it really got to us. We didn’t want to stop playing with each other.”

The second-seeded Mustangs, who defeated Villa Maria in last year’s national championship game, will play top-seeded Penn State Beaver (26-4) in the national championship game at 2 p.m. Wednesday (watch it here). The Nittany Lions defeated No. 5 Southern Maine Community College 63-49.

Third-seeded Villa Maria’s lead got as high as eight before CMCC went on a 13-4 run to take the lead for good on Huntress’ 3-pointer that made it 36-35 with 6:15 left in the third.

The Mustangs led by as much as eight and by six at the end of the third quarter before the Wildcats closed the margin to three points on a Hall free throw that made it 54-51 a little over two minutes into the fourth.

Eliza Brault’s jump shot with 5:29 left sparked the 11-0 run. Thurber added a 3-pointer and Brault, Rebecca Davila and Huntress scored inside to push the cushion to 70-56 with 3:35 remaining.

Mustangs coach Andrew Morong credited the spark provided by the bench — led by Davila (six points, five rebounds, four assists), Makenzie Beaudry (six points, eight rebounds) — with putting the pressure on Villa Maria.

“We got contributions from so many people in the second half,” Morong said.

“It was a case of us putting the adversity back on them (Villa Maria),” he said. “We knew if we put them in that adversity, the scoreboard would take of itself.”

Morong thought the Mustangs started to take the Wildcats out of their game as his team built a 14-12 lead at the end of the one quarter. But foul trouble slowed CMCC’s momentum in the second quarter (nine points) as Villa Maria went on an 11-2 run to take the lead into halftime.

“They’re so big and so long and so athletic,” said Morong, who added Villa Maria was the best team the Mustangs had faced in a decade and much-improved from last year’s national runner-up. “They’re sort of a matchup nightmare for us because we’re usually the quicker, more athletic team, at least, and they had that plus they were so much bigger.”

Morong was happy with how his team hung in on the boards (57-53 Wildcats) and remained focused on making the plays it has all season.

The Mustangs knew they would have to do the little things to take back control in the second half, Huntress said.

“We treated the last three games of the regular season like a quarterfinal, semifinal and tournament final and we went into the (conference) tournament with the same approach. It speaks to how prepared our coaches are and how they’ve been stressing doing that all season, so it’s nothing new. It just fuels the fire,” she said.

Morong credited his captains, Huntress and Thurber, with keeping everyone on the same page through the game’s momentum swings.

“That was all Kristen and Natalie,” he said. “They were huddling everyone up and making sure they were communicating what we were doing and when we were supposed to do it.”

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