Congrats to Amy Vachon and the UMaine Women’s basketball team on winning the America East Tournament and punching their ticket to the “Big Dance.” The Black Bears are a #15 seed and will take on Texas Saturday night in Austin.
This is the eighth trip to the NCAA National Tournament for the Black Bears. Through my work as a sports reporter at WLBZ TV and as the women’s play by play guy for WZON, The Sports Zone, I have seen the majority of these games in person.
It all started in Cindy Blodgett’s freshman season, 1994-1995. The entire state had Black Bear Fever. Maine complied a stunning 24-6 record but drew UCONN in the first round. For Maine it was still a thrill to take on the top ranked team in the nation, on their home court, in front of a sell out crowd. The Huskies were undefeated and featured big name players like Rebecca Lobo, Nykesha Sales and Jennifer Rizotti.
UCONN lit up the scoreboard for 105 points and won by 30. Geno and the Huskies finished the season 35-0 and beat Tennessee for their first of many national titles.
Quick side note, Lee Goldberg, Maine assistant coach Jody Benner and I went to Foxwoods the night before the game. We lost the rental car in the parking garage. Yup, we had our own little Seinfeld “The Parking Garage” episode that night as we wandered aimlessly from floor to floor.
The next season Maine went 27-5 and was sent to Charlottesville, Virginia to take on George Washington. The parents, fans and players enjoyed the warm weather as we went on some group tours of local historic venues such as Thomas Jefferson’s home. Maine lost a decent game 83-67. But Black Bear faithful could sense the program growing and had high expectations for the next few seasons.
In the 96-97 season Maine went 22-8 and won the automatic conference bid to the tourney. The Black Bears ventured to Baton Rouge to take on LSU. I recall how fast and athletic the Lady Tigers were yet Maine held tough losing 88-79. Off the court I remember hanging with the team and touring the LSU Hall of Fame which featured Pete Maravich and Shaq.
Lee Goldberg was along for this trip as well, and despite being told to stay away from the cage that housed LSU mascot “Mike The Tiger”, Lee strayed too close and got peed on by Mike. True Story.
In the 1997-1998 season I switched from TV coverage and was lucky enough to be the radio voice of the Black Bears on The statewide SportsZone-Black Bear Radio Network. This was Cindy Blodgett’s senior season and the fans had a “now or never” feeling about the season. Streaming was not yet invented and I remember Stephen and Tabitha King calling the radio station and being put on hold so they could listen to the games. Cindy rewrote the record books that year and Maine compiled a 21-9 record.
The Black Bears once again got the automatic invitation and ended up facing NC State and legendary head coach Kay Yow. Maine and teams all across the country still honor Coach Yow annually with the Play for Kay game.
The Wolfpack crushed the Bears 89-64. In that game I was excited to call Blodgett’s 3000th point. Even that was anticlimactic as she scored it on the free throw line long after the game was decided. It was a disappointing night for sure.
I happened to be on a different flight than the team that year and when we landed in Portland, our 737 slid off the runway and went down the bank by I-295. While nobody was hurt, that crash kind of fittingly summed up the end of that season.
As for the Black Bears, had the window closed? Blodgett graduated and was drafted into the WNBA by the Cleveland Rockers. Yet with Amy Vachon, Jamie Cassidy and others Maine went 24-7 but lost at Vermont in the America East title game. However, Maine’s reputation earned the Black Bears an at large bid and a #13 seed, their highest to date! Maine eagerly took off for Norfolk, Virginia to take on #4 Stanford.
I bet you know what happens next: Maine upsets the Cardinal 60-58 for the programs only NCAA tourney win! What you might not remember is that Maine darn near took out host team Old Dominion next! Maine had them on the ropes but ended up losing 72-62 as ODU made some free throws at the end. But there was one point where I was convinced I was on my way to cover the team in the Sweet 16!
Maine has danced on the national stage a couple more times, both losses to Texas Tech and North Carolina. Later this week they’ll do it again in the Lone Star State and while I wish I could be there, I know the players and coaches will make more memories for us to recall for years to come.