It has been a memorable season for the University of Maine-Fort Kent women’s basketball team.
Coach Lucas Levesque’s Bengals posted a 23-5 overall record that included a 12-0 Sunrise Conference mark. They won 20 consecutive games to claim the league championship and earn a berth in the NAIA Division II National Tournament.
UMFK’s reward, for the second, straight year, is a first-round tourney matchup against the No. 1 team in the country.
The Bengals will have their work cut out for them when they take on undefeated Morningside College of Sioux City, Iowa, in Wednesday’s 8:30 p.m. contest at Gateway Arena, also located in Sioux City, Iowa.
In contrast to UMFK’s emergence from the Sunrise Conference, Morningside (33-0, 18-0 in its conference) plays in perhaps the premier league in the country. The Great Plains Athletic Conference not only features its champion, Morningside, but is home for the Nos. 6, 8, 14 and 18 teams in the nation.
They are Northwestern (Iowa), Concordia (Neb.), Mount Marty (S.D.) and Hastings (Neb.), respectively. All of them are in the 32-team bracket for the NAIA championship.
UMFK is making its fourth appearance in the NAIA nationals, all in the last five years. The Bengals haven’t lost since a 50-45 decision at Maine Maritime Academy back on Dec. 13.
Leading the charge for UMFK is senior Ashley Ames. The 6-foot-5 center from Dexter was named the Sunrise Conference Player of the Year after averaging 15.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.8 blocked shots — all while averaging only 18.8 minutes per game. She shot 53 percent from the field and 81 percent form the foul line.
Ames ranks third in NAIA Division II in blocked shots and is 11th in defensive rebounds per game (6.9).
However, the Bengals are blessed with a wealth of talent and balance. Junior forward Kristen Violette of Fort Kent, a transfer from the University of Southern Maine, is averaging a team-best 16.0 points per game along with 6.9 rebounds.
She shoots a team-high 57 percent from the field and hits 74 percent of her free throws.
Sophomore point guard Amber Garrison (6.7 ppg) tops the squad in assists (4.8 apg) and steals (3.1 spg) and shots 51 percent from the floor.
UMFK was bolstered to start the second semester by the addition of UMaine-Machias transfer Talisha Herring. The versatile junior guard has boosted the Bengals while contributing 13.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting 43 percent from 3-point range and 77 percent from the foul line.
She picked up the slack after sophomore shooting guard Shir Fuchs (14.3 ppg) transferred to NCAA Division III Yeshiva University.
Other contributors include Geneice Bassue (6.1 rpg), Maliesha Caesar (6.0 ppg), Amanda Davis (4.3 ppg) , Emily Burnett of Bristol, Tara Waltz of Whitefield, Catherine Melton of Kenduskeag and Krystal Cyr of Fort Kent.
The Bengals rank first in the country in rebounding margin (plus-14.3), 3-point percentage (.405) and field-goal percentage defense (.303) and are No. 2 in scoring defense (45.96 ppg).
Last season, UMFK suffered a 110-37 drubbing at the hands of top-ranked Cedarville (Ohio) in its NAIA first-round game.
This time, the Bengals are up against a formidable Morningside ballclub that hasn’t lost this winter. The Mustangs are a tradition-rich program, having made seven straight trips tot he NAIA nationals and winning championships in 2004 and ’05.
Morningside, which reached the national semifinals a year ago, has made its living off pressure defense. With four starters and 12 letterwinners off last year’s team, It averages 15.4 steals per contest while forcing opponents into 24.1 turnovers per game.
Coach Jamie Sale’s Mustangs also are efficient on offense, averaging 79.6 ppg (fifth in the country) on the strength of 8.5 3-pointers per game behind 18 apg. They’re No. 1 in turnover margin, committing only one for every 10 assists.
Spearheading the charge for Morningside are senior guards Dani Gass (5-10) and Autumn Bartel (5-9), who have combined to score more than 3,400 career points and grab 1,700-plus rebounds. Gass is averaging 11.5 points and 7.4 rebounds while Bartel checks in at 15.3 ppg and 3.4 rpg.
The Mustangs have plenty of balance with 6-0 forward Brittany Williamson (12.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and 5-10 guard Laura Nelson (11.9 ppg).
Morningside has put up a healthy 79.6 ppg while shooting 45 percent from the floor and 75 percent from the foul line.