AUGUSTA — Even the University of Maine at Augusta women’s basketball team thought this could be a down year.

“I think it was a surprise that we were as good as we were,” junior forward Caitlin LaFountain said. “We weren’t really expecting (it). … We realized pretty quickly that we were going to be a special team.”

Few at UMA have been better. The Moose set a program record for wins with their 22-7 record, made it to the championship game of the Yankee Small College Conference and also got to take its game to the national stage, reaching the quarterfinals of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association Division II tournament.

“It’s a great feeling … just being able to understand that we were consistently ranked in the top three schools in the national conference all season long, and to really understand what an incredible achievement that is and how strong our program can be,” coach Jennifer Laney said.

The season wasn’t supposed to go this way. Not on paper, at least, after top scorer Jamie Plummer graduated and the Moose came into the season with only one senior on the roster.

“At the beginning of the season we probably had mid-level expectations,” LaFountain said. “Kind of like a rebuilding year.”

It took one game for that perspective to change. The Moose opened with a 95-31 win over Vermont Tech, and even given the small sample size, Laney could tell that she had a good mix.

“After the first game of the season, I said ‘Wow, this is going to be a really special team,’ ” she said. ” ‘If we can continue to come together, like we are, we have a great shot at making the national tournament.’ “

Her players shared her enthusiasm.

“The way we moved the ball, we all played together like we had been playing together our whole lives,” LaFountain said. “It was kind of like ‘Wow, we really could do something this year.'”

That confidence prevailed through each step of a 21-4 regular season, as UMA presented a tough matchup to nearly each team it faced.

“We had an incredibly great inside-out game this year, and that was something that I think was just very hard to defend for people,” Laney said. “We had some phenomenal outside shooters, and then the strength from our post players on the inside just made it really difficult to guard in pretty much all facets.”

That young roster that was supposed to be an obstacle for the Moose instead developed ahead of the curve. LaFountain turned into the team’s anchor, averaging team highs with 17.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game.

“There was that person (with Plummer) that you could always rely on, so I kind of had to take that on and be the person that everyone else could rely on,” she said. “As a junior, it was out of my comfort zone at first, but I think I really fell into it and found a groove.”

“When we needed a bucket, we found Caitlin and she delivered, and that was something that I think she thrived on,” Laney said. “That was something she really enjoyed, and she’s just a phenomenal player.”

UMA kept winning, and the young players were the ones driving the team. Lawrence’s Dominique Lewis, a sophomore, was second on the team in scoring at 14.3 points per game, while freshman Sidney Moore from Nokomis was third at 12.6. Kate Stevens, a sophomore from Carrabec, was second in rebounding with 7.9 boards per contest.

The team also got a veteran presence from senior Carmen Bragg, who was fourth at 11.3 points per game.

“Everybody really stepped up their game,” Laney said. “Everybody had a voice. I think when you have something like that with such a young team and the freshmen coming in feel like they have some voice in it, that makes their commitment and their dedication even more.”

The Moose reached the YSCC tournament semifinals and beat Southern Maine CC before falling to Central Maine CC, which dealt UMA two of its four regular-season losses. The team nevertheless qualified for a trip to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, host of the Division I and II tournaments, for its third venture to the nationals in five years after previous trips in 2014 and ’16.

“The first time that we made it … it was really about the experience,” Laney said. “I think now, this being our third time going, our focus was really on winning and winning the whole thing.”

UMA didn’t, eliminated by losses to New York’s Villa Maria College and Davis College, but it will have the players back to make another run.

“Everybody had a great opportunity to kind of learn what it takes to win at nationals, and what it looks like and the competition, and what the whole week is like,” Laney said. “Being able to experience that and kind of be through it is going to be essential in our success next year.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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