BANGOR, Maine — Castleton State endured an up-and-down season after being named the preseason favorite to win the North Atlantic Conference championship.
With a nucleus of poised seniors leading the way, the Spartans finally put it all together during the NAC women’s basketball final four at Newman Gymnasium.
Senior guard Mary Nienow hit two of her eight 3-pointers during a span of one minute, 17 seconds late in the second half Saturday, sparking Castleton State to a 63-57 victory over host Husson University in the NAC championship game.
“We’ve had some real good moments and we’ve had some moments with a senior-laden club that weren’t up to our expectations,” said Spartans coach Tim Barrett. “It was good to see this group of seniors really step it up in postseason play and get a championship.”
The third-seeded Spartans (17-11), from Castleton, Vt., earn the NAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Championship.
Top-seeded Husson (18-8) had its 12-game winning streak snapped and awaits an outside shot at an at-large berth.
Nienow chose Saturday to have the best shooting game of her career. She went 8-for-10 from behind the arc on her way to a game-high 27 points, helping the Spartans overcome coach Kissy Walker’s Eagles.
“I just let it fly this afternoon and I felt great,” Nienow said. “I was like I wasn’t even thinking. I was just shooting the ball.”
Nienow drained five of six 3-pointers in the second half en route to being named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Castleton shot 50 percent (11-for-22) from 3-point range as a team while avenging two regular-season losses to Husson.
Also earning All-Tournament honors were Castleton’s Jess Banks, Bree Hanscom and Shelby Bradford of Husson, Caitlyn Laflin of UMaine-Farmington and Brittany Holden of Green Mountain College of Poultney, Vt.
Just as it had done in Friday night’s semifinal overtime thriller against UMF, Castleton set the tone with hard-nosed, man-to-man defense. The Spartans also shot 46 percent from the floor to help limit Husson’s transition opportunities.
The momentum seemed to carry over.
“They’re either going to be out of gas or they’re going to be pumped. I think they were riding high,” Walker said.
The Eagles pushed the ball inside to Hanscom and Bradford early, but found it increasingly difficult to get those open looks as the game progressed. The Spartans also challenged Husson’s guards and limited open looks on the perimeter, forcing the hosts to grind it out in the half-court.
“That’s what our coach really preaches, heels on the 3-point line, keep the ball in front of you, keep your player in front of you, help defense,” Banks said.
Castleton built a 12-point lead in the second half. The Spartans held Husson without a field goal for almost 7½ minutes and forced six turnovers while mounting a 15-4 run that made it 51-39 with 8:20 to play.
Husson rallied behind the determined play of senior guard Laura Archer of Ellsworth and Bradford. Archer’s 3-pointers were bookends to a 14-1 flurry that gave the Eagles a 53-52 lead with 3:41 left.
However, Nienow bookended 3-pointers around another by Banks — all in a span of 1:17 — to put Castleton up by eight and crush the Eagles’ hopes.
“Our goals were to outrebound them and get to the foul line and we did those two things, but 50 percent from the 3-point line was just too much,” Walker said.
Banks, a senior point guard, scored eight points and provided nine assists and three steals for the Spartans.
Hanscom, a freshman from Mattawamkeag, led a balanced Husson offense with 14 points and grabbed a team-high six rebounds. Bradford, a junior from Lee, contributed 13 points and five rebounds, while Bethany Sevey of Skowhegan added 12 points.