Coach Joanne Palombo-McCallie and star guard Cindy Blodgett combined to spearhead the University of Maine women’s basketball program to unprecedented heights during the early 1990s.
That included four consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament.
Tonight, the two women will be reunited at Alfond Arena with pupil taking on mentor as Blodgett’s Black Bears entertain McCallie’s seventh-ranked Duke Blue Devils in a game being billed as the Dead River Co. Shootout.
Tip time is 7 p.m.
Demonstrating her affection and respect for Blodgett and UMaine, McCallie agreed to bring Duke to Orono for what, for the Blue Devils, is a rare nonleague road game against a lower-level opponent.
“I told her I’d support her in any way I could,” McCallie said. “Cindy had the courage to bring her young team here [Durham, N.C.] last year. She did not back away from that.”
The situation is similar this season. Atlantic Coast Conference member Duke (8-2) is nationally ranked while UMaine (2-6), of America East, continues to rebuild.
Blodgett hopes her players relish the challenge they will encounter against the Blue Devils, who dominated last season’s game 98-31.
“This is an important game for us, on multiple levels,” Blodgett said. “It’s not just another game. For our team, it gives us a chance to go up against a great team.”
McCallie spent her youth in Brunswick, where she was a Parade High School All-American. She visits Maine every summer to see her family and is looking forward to being in Orono and seeing familiar faces in the crowd.
“It’s a special treat to come to the Orono area and be around the university, a place that gave me my start, gave me support, love, all the things that you appreciate having so much as a young coach,” McCallie said. “I can’t say enough great things about the university and the time I had there and what it has done for me and my family.”
McCallie in 2008 was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame. This year, she was selected for the UMaine Sports Hall of Fame, but was unable to attend the induction ceremony earlier this fall.
UMaine will take the opportunity tonight to recognize McCallie.
“I think it’s important that people show gratitude in life beyond sports, just in life,” Blodgett said. “This allows the university, our women’s program and the entire state to thank coach Palombo for what she did while she was here for eight years.”
McCallie’s career took off after guiding the Black Bears to a 167-73 record from 1992-2000. Her tenure include four league titles and six consecutive trips to the NCAA tourney, with a first-round victory over Stanford in 1999.
Her favorite Alfond Arena moment came on Jan. 5, 1995.
“Alabama was ranked 10th in the country, 10-1. We beat them by two,” McCallie said of a contest that featured 30 points by a freshman guard — Blodgett.
“It was just the epitome of the fight and the fortitude [the team demonstrated],” she said.
McCallie left UMaine for a seven-year stint at Michigan State. Her Spartan teams compiled a 149-75 record which encompassed one Big Ten championship and five trips to the NCAA tournament. MSU was the national runner-up in 2004-05, when she was named the AP national coach of the year.
McCallie is in her third season at Duke, where her teams boast a 60-18 mark and two NCAA berths.
Blodgett said McCallie’s return is long overdue. She was surprised neither of her predecessors had tried to schedule McCallie’s Michigan State team.
“I’m thrilled that it’s now that she comes back,” Blodgett said. “Who knows, maybe down the road as we continue to improve, maybe we can entice her back.”
Without any prompting, McCallie shared thoughts about Blodgett in her role as the head coach at UMaine. She is convinced Blodgett has a winning plan to rebuild the program.
“You’ve got to understand it to be able to do it and she gets it,” McCallie said of UMaine basketball’s heyday. “Fans have got to really understand that there’s no magic wand. It’s got to come through hard work and commitment and she’s the perfect person for that position.”
In addition to their former player-coach relationship, Blodgett and McCallie have become colleagues. McCallie has been willing to serve as a sounding board as Blodgett continues to develop as a coach.
“There’s this common bond,” Blodgett said.
“It’s so nice to have someone who is supportive but also she understands the struggles we’re going through. It’s nice that she’s continuing to be my coach in a lot of ways.
“She knows how much I love her and I just feel like what she’s doing, bringing her team here, is a credit to who she is and how much she really enjoyed being here at Maine.”
Blodgett said the Bears’ recent experience at West Virginia (an 88-32 loss on Dec. 5) should help them deal with a team such as Duke.
“We get another chance to go up against an elite team and hopefully start right from the get-go and be in attack mode,” said Blodgett, who pointed to Duke’s, size, strength, quickness and athleticism.
“We’re going to have to have a great effort, not back down,” she added. “We can’t step out on the floor and get caught up in the fact that we’re playing Duke University.”