BANGOR — With the league’s most potent offense, the Husson University women’s basketball team was usually able to outscore its opponents during the regular season.
With the North Atlantic Conference title on the line Saturday, the Eagles made a statement with their defensive play.
Top-seeded Husson hounded No. 2 Castleton State into 24 turnovers and limited the Spartans to three 3-pointers with a combination of defensive looks to set the tone for a 67-53 victory at Newman Gymnasium.
Coach Kissy Walker’s Eagles (16-11) won their second straight NAC championship and earned the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Championship. Husson will find out its opponent on Monday.
“We said that the focus of our whole tournament was going to be our defensive effort,” said junior guard Amanda Gifford of Lee, who was named the tournament’s MVP.
Husson was particularly effective with its 1-3-1 zone, which trapped on the wings and created several turnovers. The hosts scored 28 points as a direct result of miscues by the Spartans (18-9).
“We’ve been playing the 1-3-1 all year, but we haven’t been trapping out of it,” said Gifford, who tallied 14 points, three assists and three steals. “Today, we knew we that we could kind of rattle their guards a little bit if we put some pressure on.”
Senior Bethany Sevey of Skowhegan, the NAC Player of the Year, connected for 20 points — including the 1,000th of her career — and grabbed five rebounds. She was named to the all-tournament team along with Vanessa Powers and Alyssa Leonard of Castleton State, Kenni Norton of the University of Maine-Farmington and Leah Jackson of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.
It was the third consecutive year the two teams met in the title game. They split during the regular season, each winning at home. Castleton State won 85-62 on Feb. 12.
“We’ve been struggling with defense and we knew that if there was any way we were going to win, it had to be (with) defense,” Sevey said. “We wanted to stop their post players. They’re very talented.”
The Eagles received numerous contributions, including those of Kelli Murray of Shawmut (9 points, 8 rebounds), Bree Hanscom of Mattawamkeag (5 points, 4 rebounds) and Caitlyn Butterfield of Gorham (3 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals).
Noelle Lincoln of Dixmont (5 points, 3 steals), Marissa Albert of Fort Kent (5 points) and Stephanie Comstock of Bangor also logged key minutes for Husson, which outscored Castleton 21-8 from the foul line.
Powers was a force for the Spartans with a game-high 21 points and 13 rebounds, while Leonard and Tarryn Bolognani chipped in with 10 points each. Castleton shot 39 percent but could not overcome its turnovers.
“I really thought the 1-3-1 rattled them a little bit,” Walker said. “The kids wanted to play it.”
Leading 40-37, Husson pulled ahead with a decisive 14-1 spurt midway through the second half.
Albert opened the run with a 3-pointer off a kickout pass from Hanscom, then Gifford scored a layup off a Butterfield steal and assist. Megan Johnson hit a foul shot for the Spartans’ only point in a span of almost seven minutes.
Two Butterfield free throws, Albert’s driving layup, Hanscom’s baseline basket and a Sevey 3-pointer gave Husson a 51-38 advantage with seven minutes to play.
“It starts for us on defense,” Butterfield said. “We got fast-break points, we got our intensity level up.”
Castleton never got closer than nine points after that.