By Barry Matulaitis, Staff Editor
LIVERMORE/FAYETTE — The thrill of the Central Maine Community College (CMCC) women’s basketball team’s national title in early March was still present for Rylee Moore and Nicole Hamblin as they reflected on their team’s accomplishment in a recent interview.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” said Moore.
Not only was it the first CMCC women’s basketball team to win a national championship, the Mustangs became the first Maine women’s basketball team to win a college title.
Hamblin, of Fayette, and Moore, of Livermore, Spruce Mountain High School graduates, played important roles for the Mustangs as they rolled to a 33-1 record and a victory in the USCAA Women’s Division II championship game. The road to the ultimate prize started in the offseason with strength and conditioning work.
Actually, check that: There is no offseason for a championship team.
“We just focused on working on the little things,” said Hamblin. “We focused on ourselves and getting better as individuals.”
Moore mentioned that the team did weight lifting three days per week and conditioning on two days per week to progressively improve their fitness.
After graduating from Spruce Mountain, where they played on the Phoenix, who had a string of unbeaten regular seasons and conference titles, Hamblin and Moore knew they’d have to step up their game to compete at the college level.
“College is much more fast-paced than high school was,” said Moore.
“Some of the best people on each high school team are on the college teams,” said Hamblin. “You face some tough guards and post players.”
Coach Andrew Morong kept the team focused on their goals, said Hamblin.
“He held us to high standards academically, and on the basketball court. He’s a great coach,” she said.
A regular season defeat to Dean College “gave us a reality check,” said Moore. Hamblin added that “Right after the loss, we focused on what we could do as a team and individually to get better from that experience.”
The Mustangs finished with a 30-1 regular season record and were the regular season and conference tournament champions in the Yankee Conference. They faced host school Penn-State Fayette in the first round of the USCAA tourney.
“We knew they had three six-foot or taller girls,” said Moore. “We focused on boxing out strong and going up for pump fakes.”
The Mustangs got the early lead and built a big enough cushion to withstand a fourth-quarter rally by the Roaring Lions. Their 79-69 win meant that they would face archrival Southern Maine Community College (SMCC) in the semifinals.
“We knew they (SMCC) had a good shooter,” said Hamblin. “We knew they took charges like we did. We had to be careful about driving to the hoop.”
Even though they were outshot 18-1 at the foul line, and had six players with two fouls each, CMCC clung to a two-point halftime lead. The game continued to be close until the Mustangs pulled away in the fourth quarter to put away a 62-46 win.
Then, it was on to the national championship game to face Penn State-Lehigh.
“A lot of the Penn State teams like to bring the ball up the floor slowly,” said Hamblin. “We tried to play more uptempo to tire them out.”
Another crucial aspect of the game was intensity.
“In the first two games we got leads and we’d slowly lose it,” said Hamblin. “In the final, we focused on keeping our intensity.”
The Mustangs started strong and didn’t let up en route to 74-57 win. CMCC’s Jenny Schlim led all scorers with 20 points, and tournament MVP Brooke Reynolds added eight points in the first half for the Mustangs.
When asked about Moore’s and Hamblin’s contributions to the Mustangs, Morong said he couldn’t imagine winning a national title this season without them.
“Rylee is a tireless worker and a selfless teammate,” he said in an email. “She sacrificed her body and her own playing time to make our team and program better. Her willingness to learn and improve is so refreshing in this day and age.
“Nicole was always very talented, but really took it upon herself to improve her demeanor and savvy this past season. She had the ability to be our leading scorer, which at times she was, but she knew our team needed her to be a facilitator more than anything else – a role she firmly grasped.
“Both of these women are incredibly intelligent, funny, respectful, and absolute joy to be around. We are incredibly lucky to have them in our program. We love recruiting from the Jay-Livermore area, because like many communities in Maine, it’s the home to blue-collar, hard-working people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and go to work. Nicole and Rylee truly exemplify this mentality.”
After finishing her schooling at CMCC, Moore, who is a freshman, said she wants to go on to another college but isn’t sure which one yet. She is majoring in life sciences, with a goal of becoming a physical therapist and continuing to play basketball as long as she can.
Hamblin will attend the University of New England next year, and will major in dental hygiene while playing on the women’s basketball team there.
They offered some sage advice for high school basketball players looking to make the leap to the college level.
“Always push yourself even if you’re having an off day,” said Moore. “All that stuff you do in practice will pay off.”
“Just work hard for everything!” Hamblin agreed.