After leading the University of Maine to its first four NCAA Tournament appearances, All-American guard and all-time leading scorer Cindy Blodgett graduated in 1998.
The following season several players, including point guard Amy Vachon of Augusta, helped take the Black Bears to a new level.
On March 12, 1999, the 10th-seeded Black Bears collected the program’s first and only NCAA Tournament victory, a 60-58 triumph over No. 7 Stanford University at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.
“The Stanford game was amazing,” recalled Vachon, who coached UMaine to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances before this month’s scheduled America East championship game at Stony Brook was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I remember feeling very confident going into the game. I felt that our coaches had prepared us [well] and we believed we could win,” Vachon said. “Once the game began, and as the game went on, we became more and more confident.”
That confidence had been built over the course of the season.
“We believed we could win any game we played,” said former player Katie [Clark] Herbine. “Coach P [Joanne Palombo-McCallie] always had us ready to play. We knew we had nothing to lose. We all just wanted to represent our program and our state the best we could by playing hard and playing together as a team.”
The 1999 game was a seesaw affair. UMaine led 30-26 at intermission thanks to a 25-16 rebounding edge and 37.5 percent shooting, compared with Stanford’s 31 percent.
The Black Bears continued to cling to a slim lead late in the game until Stanford’s Carolyn Moos sank two free throws with 41.8 seconds left to tie it 58-58.
On UMaine’s next possession, Vachon passed to America East Player of the Year Jamie Cassidy, who drove to the basket only to have her shot come up short.
But everyone collapsed on Cassidy, which left sophomore forward Martina Tinklova alone to grab the offensive rebound. Tinklova was fouled going to the hoop and sank both free throws with 16.7 seconds left.
UMaine converted all 13 of its free-throw attempts in the second half and finished 15-for-17 for the game.
Regan Freuen missed a driving baseline jump shot with two seconds remaining and the Black Bears celebrated the milestone triumph.
“After the buzzer sounded, I remember watching [Vachon] running the length of the court with her arms raised over her head,” Herbine said. “She never showed much emotion.
“When I watch that clip with the whole team celebrating with her, it makes me think that is what pure joy looks like,” added Herbine, a Bangor native who is the girls basketball coach at Biddeford High School.
“It was a great memory and one that our team will always remember,” Vachon said.
“The win meant so much to the program and to us as players,” Herbine said. “We represented the university well and made our mark as competitors in women’s athletics. It was amazing to have success as female athletes in a time when Maine sports on the national level was dominated by male athletes.”
The victory and the season etched that team in UMaine history.
“To make our mark in such a big way meant we would always be known as THAT team, the team that beat Stanford,” Herbine said. “All of the sacrifices and obstacles along the way led us to a pretty great place in the history of the program.”
Cassidy finished with a team-high 15 points against Stanford despite 4-for-19 shooting, but she made all seven of her free throws. Kristen McCormick and Vachon, who were All-America East second-team guards, contributed 13 and 11 points, respectively, and Tinklova posted 11 points to go with a game-high 11 rebounds.
Vachon also provided seven rebounds and seven assists, and McCormick grabbed seven rebounds.
“I really don’t remember my individual performance,” Vachon said. “My job was to lead our team and do whatever was needed to win.”
Herbine had a point and a rebound off the bench.
Lindsey Yamasaki poured in a game-high 24 points for Stanford thanks to a 6-for-11 performance beyond the 3-point arc. Freuen had 13 points.
Vachon said it was advantageous to be playing a team on a neutral floor after losing three of their first four first-round NCAA Tournament games to teams playing on their home courts: Connecticut, Louisiana State University and North Carolina State.
“That was huge,” Vachon said.
Vachon and Herbine fondly recalled the outstanding fan support they had at the Stanford game.
“I believe we had two busses that came down from Maine to Virginia. We had an outstanding fan base at the game,” Vachon said. “As the game went on, the Old Dominion fans started cheering for us because they wanted an upset as well.”
“It was an amazing time,” Herbine said.
Two days later, the Black Bears gave fifth-ranked Old Dominion a good battle before succumbing 72-62.
UMaine has played four NCAA Tournament games since then, losing to North Carolina, Texas Tech, Texas and, most recently, North Carolina State in 2019.