As fiery pitcher Tug McGraw preached during the New York Mets’ 1973 World Series appearance: “You gotta believe.”
The members of the University of Maine women’s basketball team are more likely to believe in themselves after Thursday’s 76-64 victory over 15th-ranked Western Kentucky at Alfond Arena in Orono.
Although Maine will continue to be the underdog whenever it steps outside America East, its confidence level received a huge boost by beating the Lady Toppers.
“I think really the best thing for this team is to know that we are a known entity now,” said coach Joanne Palombo-McCallie. “It’s very clear that we have some outstanding players on our team.”
While the win should continue to serve as motivation for the rest of the season, Palombo knows the Black Bears can’t be satisfied.
“I guess the thing is, where do we go from here?” Palombo said.
“You don’t make a big deal, this is just one game, but it’s a great opportunity for us.”
This Maine team is still relatively young. Cindy Blodgett and Sandi Carver are the only seniors on a squad that features three sophomore regulars.
While the Black Bears have posted some important victories in the past two seasons, including back-to-back wins over Vermont in the America East championship, only Blodgett and Carver experienced the 1995 upset of No. 10 Alabama.
And even Blodgett finds it difficult to derive any residual benefit from looking back on the game.
“I don’t think ever I’ve talked about it [with my teammates],” Blodgett said of Maine’s other memorable upset.
The on-court poise of Blodgett and Carver, and a renewed commitment to hard work during practice this past week, were other factors in Maine’s success against the Lady Toppers.
“It goes back to leadership and will to win, and they sure had it,” Palombo said. “And they’re going to keep it, I guarantee you that.”
Perhaps no one received a bigger boost of confidence Thursday night than Andrea Clark. The junior post player made her second career start and played 15 minutes, providing a physical defensive and rebounding presence.
“It feels wonderful,” Clark said. “You go through practices, do all you can do to help the team. You’ve got to just keep working hard, that’s all you can do.”
Western Kentucky coach Steve Small certainly has become a believer in UMaine, Blodgett in particular.
“Blodgett’s all she’s cracked up to be,” Small said. “Blodgett is an All-American and we wanted to give her her 20 [points]. Instead, she got 32.”
Once again, Maine’s vociferous crowd of 4,934 received rave reviews, especially from Western Kentucky players and coaches.
“They were very into the game, very knowledgeable fans, very appreciative of good basketball,” Small said. “We appreciate playing in front of that kind of crowd. I think they helped Maine.”
Western Kentucky center Leslie Johnson said the fans helped the Bears bounce back after scoring runs by the Lady Toppers.
“We should have come out and jumped on them from the beginning, but we gave them confidence and the crowd really helped them keep their confidence all night,” Johnson said.
Small said the Bears can only take the next step by continuing to schedule Top 25-caliber teams for their non-league games.
“The big thing they have to do to get the program at that level – they’re there almost – is go out and play the big dogs,” he said.
The next big dog on Maine’s schedule is second-ranked Connecticut, which awaits the Bears for a Feb. 16 game at the Hartford Civic Center.
Blodgett’s successful return to the UMaine lineup and the Bears’ game against a national-caliber opponent attracted more than just fans to Alfond Arena Thursday night.
Alex Wolff of Sports Illustrated, Mark Blaudschun of The Boston Globe, and Lori Riley of the Hartford Courant all were formulating stories about Blodgett and the Black Bears and witnessed the upset.
Dick Patrick of USA Today already visited Orono earlier this season and has a story on Blodgett in the works.