AUGUSTA — Hot hands early and steady defense throughout the game were the difference for the Monmouth Academy girls basketball team in Saturday night’s Class C state championship game. The Mustangs never trailed Houlton, built a double-digit lead, and held off a furious Shiretowners rally in the fourth quarter to take a 56-50 win.

“We knew we had to come out fast. We were just ready to go.,” Monmouth senior Abbey Allen said.

The victory gave the Mustangs (21-1) back-to-back Class C championships. Monmouth set a record for most 3-pointers in a Class C state championship game, sinking eight threes in the win. Houlton, which played in the last two Class B state finals, winning the title in 2016, finished the season at 21-1.

“It was in our mind. It was our number one goal. I think winning it back-to-back made it even more special because I’m a senior,” Tia Day, Monmouth’s Miss Maine Basketball semifinalist, said.

Day was instrumental in staking Monmouth to an early lead. Day hit three 3-pointers in the first quarter as the Mustangs took a 22-9 lead. The Mustangs scored the first six points of the game, then closed the quarter with an 11-0 run.

“We wanted to make sure we came out strong and got them running up and down the court, because that’s kind of our game, getting fast breaks,” Day, who scored 14 points, said.

Added Monmouth coach Scott Wing: “We put on a pretty good shooting show there. We’ve done that a couple times this year. We picked a good time to do it in the state championship game…. It’s just a momentum thing (making threes). It’s such a psychological thing.”

Allen led the Mustangs with 15 points, and was a consistent scorer in the paint in the first half, leading the Mustangs with 10 first half points. Monmouth led 33-21 at the half, and midway through the third quarter pushed the lead to 17 points, 46-29. Houlton missed senior co-captain Kristen Graham, who sat out after a knee injury in the Class C North tournament.

“The one thing she brings to the table is defense and rebounds. Those were two keys to the game tonight, I thought,” Houlton coach Shawn Graham said.

Wing thought Graham’s absence was felt the most in limiting Houlton’s depth.

“That’s what we usually look at when we look at other teams, because we know we can usually wear teams out. Watching their games, they usually use seven (players) and losing a player, so they’re down a little bit more. They use a player they usually don’t use,” Wing said.

Down 54-42 with five minutes left, Houlton made a run. The Shiretowns became more aggressive defensively, pressing and trapping. After committing just one turnover through the first three quarters, the Mustangs gave the ball away seven times in the fourth.

“It was uncharacteristic of us to do that. I think part of it that played into it was they had fouls to give, and they could be ultra-aggressive. They got a couple steals by being ultra-aggressive,” Wing said.

Kolleen Bouchard, Houlton’s 2,000-point scorer and Miss Maine Basketball finalist, took over the game offensively for the Shiretowners. Bouchard scored 20 of her game-high 35 points in the second half, including Houlton’s final 14 points of the game. A Bouchard layup with 28 seconds left cut Monmouth’s lead to 54-50.

“I said that I thought she might be the best player in the state. There’s no doubt in my mind she is the best player in the state after playing against her. What she showed in that fourth quarter was guts, carrying her team,” Wing said.

Hannah Anderson guarded Bouchard most of the game. Wing told Anderson she wouldn’t stop Bouchard, but her job was to make the high-scorer work hard for every point she got.

“(Bouchard’s) just a great player. You can’t really stop a player like that. Hannah Anderson was given the task of trying to do so, and I think she did a pretty darn good job at it,” Day said.

After a Monmouth turnover with 15.6 seconds left, Houlton had the ball with a chance to cut the Mustangs lead to one possession. A Bouchard miss led to a Destiny Clough (eight rebounds) board, and Day sank a pair of free throws with 5.7 seconds left to clinch the win.

“We shifted defenses a number of times and they had a lot of contributions from different players and made it difficult for us,” coach Graham said. “We were down 17. It would have been easy to fold and quit. It was a little bit of a gut check for us. .. As gassed as we were midway through the third into the fourth, I thought we got our second wind and made a good push.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM