ORONO – The continuing mission of the University of Maine women’s basketball team is to reach “the next level,” yet rarely have the Black Bears proved they deserve consideration as being in that upper echelon.
Thursday night, Maine took a step toward earning a measure of respect on the national scene.
Cindy Blodgett made a triumphant return to Alfond Arena, firing in a game-high 32 points while sparking Maine to a 76-64 upset of 15th-ranked Western Kentucky.
Finally, the Bears have a meaningful win to build upon.
“It just feels good to finally get a big win like this and hopefully it will just take off from here,” said Blodgett, who tried to put the game in perspective.
“I don’t know about huge upset,” she said. “I think they’re a quality team and they’re ranked naturally, but we’re a quality team as well. I don’t thik we felt like we were as big underdogs as all of you [media] did.”
An enthusiastic crowd of 4,934 cheered themselves hoarse as they witnessed a stellar display of defense and rebounding from coach Joanne Palombo-McCallie’s Bears, now 13-3.
Western Kentucky, coming off Sunday’s 88-86 victory at No. 4 Louisiana Tech, simply couldn’t solve Maine’s assortment of defenses. Coach Steve Small’s 16-6 Lady Toppers were ranked sixth in the country in scoring, but were held nearly 19 points under their 82.7 average.
“Unbelievable,” Palombo said of Maine’s defense. “I never thought Western got into a flow. I think Cindy did a heck of a job from the point guard spot controlling the tempo when we did have the ball.”
Maine, which only seven days earlier had surrendered 69 points in a stunning loss to America East rival Drexel, proved it has answered the wakeup call.
That contest was the first for Blodgett after missing four games with a foot injury.
“They played with a lot of intensity, a lot of emotion. They really wanted that basketball game,” Small said of Maine’s effort.
“We played very spurty basketball,” he added. “They changed defenses a lot, they did some good things. It was really more our lack of concentration and our lack of executing that hurt us.”
Spurred on by the vocal partisan crowd, the Bears displayed poise and maturity while fending off repeated challenges by the Lady Toppers. Maine never trailed after Blodgett buried a 3-pointer less than four minutes into the game.
“It’s a great crowd, a great atmosphere. I’m never coming back,” joked Small, who retracted the statement when he remembered Blodgett is a senior.
It was Blodgett who provided the spark for Maine’s final surge. The crafty senior contorted herself around ShaRae Mansfield, drawing a foul before throwing in an eight-foot leaner from the baseline. Blodgett completed the three-point play, giving Maine a 63-59 edge with 2:29 to play.
“That shot really hurt at that moment,” Small said. “What you saw was a frustrated team.”
With the fans standing and cheering, the Bears made a defensive stop, then found Jamie Cassidy for an eight-footer from the paint. Martina Tinklova’s steal on the ensuing possession led to two Cassidy foul shots, enabling Maine to clinch the win from the foul line.
Cassidy scored 13 of her 20 points in the second half and led Maine with eight rebounds. For the first time, she has experienced a big-time victory.
“I was just thinking about last year and all the games we came so close in. I didn’t want to feel that way again tonight,” Cassidy said.
“I think that it’ll make us realize that we have to work as hard as we did this week in practice all the time; now that we’ve got the feeling that we can beat anybody.”
Sandi Carver added six points and six boards, Klara Danes scored nine points, and Amy Vachon provided six assists and five rebounds.
Leslie Johnson paced Western Kentucky with 21 points, while Danielle McCulley contributed 12 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
The Bears’ resilience was tested severely after they turned a 37-31 halftime edge into a 14-point lead early in the second half. The Lady Toppers hounded the Bears into four turnovers with full-court pressure, while rugged center Leslie Johnson and lanky forward Mansfield attacked the interior of the Maine defense as WKU surged back into contention with a 16-4 spurt.
Western Kentucky got within two at 51-49 on an 18-footer by Sha’Ronda Allen at the 11:29 mark, but the Bears tightened up the defense behind some inspired play by backup power forward Andrea Clark.
At the other end, Maine worked the ball inside, going 6-for-8 from the foul line during a 10-1 run that restored the lead to 61-50 with 6:59 to play. Again, Johnson led a WKU run, hitting a 17-foot jumper on the front end of a conventional three-point play, then nailing a 16-footer between two free throws each by Shea Lunsford and Katashia Witcher to slice Maine’s lead back to 61-59 with 3:36 left.
That’s when Maine fired the afterburners.
The Bears maintained control of the play and momentum during a solid first half.
Behind Cassidy’s aggressive rebounding and a restrictive defensive effort, Maine was able to prevent the Lady Toppers from manufacturing offensive spurts.
Blodgett set the tone on the offensive end swishing three rainbow 3-pointers within 76 seconds to give Maine a 19-10 lead.
Western Kentucky responded as 5-11 Kristi Hartley came off the bench and disrupted Blodgett’s shooting. In the meantime, the visitors got intd off a 9-0 run to make it 19-19 with 9 minutes left in the half.
Black Bears 76, Lady Toppers 64
W. Kentucky (16-6) Maine women (13-3)
Name G AG F AF TP Name G AG F AF TP
Lunsford 1 1 2 2 4 Danes 4 6 1 2 9
McCulley 6 15 0 2 12 Carver 1 4 4 4 6
Johnson 9 13 3 4 21 Clark 2 2 0 0 4
Townsend 3 8 1 1 8 Blodgett 10 22 8 10 32
Witcher 1 4 2 3 4 Vachon 0 3 2 2 2
Allen 1 2 0 0 2 McCormick 0 3 1 2 1
Walz 2 7 0 0 6 Lopez 0 0 0 0 0
Hartley 0 3 0 0 0 Cassidy 8 14 4 8 20
Mansfield 2 2 3 6 7 Tinklova 1 1 0 0 2
Totals 25 55 11 18 64 Totals 26 55 20 28 76
Western Kentucky 31 64
Maine 37 76
3-pt. goals: W. Kentucky (3-13): Townsend 1-6, Walz 2-6, Hartley 0-1; Maine (4-16): Danes 0-1, Blodgett 4-11, Vachon 0-2, McCormick 0-1, Cassidy 0-1