Is Mackenzie Holmes the best women's college basketball player ever from Maine?
Mar. 14—Joanne P. McCallie's collegiate coaching career included 646 victories, a combined four Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten Conference championships, and 21 appearances in the NCAA Division I women's basketball tournament.
The Brunswick native has seen, up close, the best women's college basketball players that the state has produced. At the University of Maine, she coached Clinton's Cindy Blodgett. At Northwestern, she played against Westbrook's Lisa Blais Manning.
And when she watches Gorham's Mackenzie Holmes, now a senior at Indiana University, she sees something special.
"We've never seen a player quite like her ever come out of Maine," McCallie said. "She's not just defined as being a player from Maine. She's a national player. I think, sometimes, we don't recognize that."
Holmes is earning conference and national accolades while leading the second-ranked Hoosiers to a 27-3 record and a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament. The 6-foot-3 forward is averaging 22.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game, all of which lead the team. She's ranked seventh in the country in scoring. She's ranked second in the country in field goal percentage, at 68.8%.
She's the newly crowned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and was selected as a first-team All-Big Ten pick for the second time in three years. Last week, Holmes was named a first-team All-American by The Athletic, and was among 15 candidates selected for the Wooden Award and 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Award, both of which go to the nation's top player. She and Indiana will start their tournament at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.
"Right in front of our eyes, she's become this awesome, talented post player that I would put up against anybody in the country," said Indiana Coach Teri Moren.
And, perhaps, the best women's college basketball player that Maine has ever produced?
Such a question might have been outlandish before this season. It isn't anymore.
"To be up for the conversation of national Player of the Year, to be a first-team All-American, to have the kind of wins they have this season ... I do think it's unprecedented," said Adrienne Shibles, who's in her second year as the women's basketball coach at Dartmouth College after coaching at Bowdoin College for 13 years.
"She's in the conversation (as the best ever). I think what she's done for her team, playing at the highest level and putting them in a position to win a national championship and putting up the kind of numbers she's put up, it's pretty fantastic."
Amy Vachon, the women's basketball coach at the University of Maine and a former star as a point guard for the Black Bears, said Holmes is breaking new ground for players from the state.
"When you look at what she's doing and the accolades that she has, it's just a fact that no one else has done that," she said. "Comparing and (saying) who was better and why, I'm not going to do that. But she's doing some things that are really special that haven't been seen before."
McCallie also didn't take a stance on who's the best ever from Maine — "You can't pick your favorites in a family," she said — but she enjoys the conversation.
"It's a fair and fun question, and it is so much fun to ruminate and really think about it," McCallie said. "There's no doubt she is one of the very best, and certainly right now just blazing her own trail."
Shibles chuckled when asked who was her pick for Maine's top college player.
"I knew you were going to ask that. I don't like to lay down 'She's the best one,'" she said. "(Holmes) really does deserve to be in that conversation, and I definitely think it could be argued that she's the best player to come from the state of Maine."
The best-ever conversation boils down to legendary names. Manning set a sky-high standard by becoming a starter and assist leader at point guard and top-rate defender for an Old Dominion team that made two Final Fours and won the national championship in 1985.
Blodgett, who became a legend while at Lawrence High in Fairfield, became the first to challenge Manning for the top position, leading the country in scoring twice at UMaine while earning third-team Associated Press All-America status her senior year, bringing the Black Bears to four straight NCAA tournaments and becoming the only Maine native drafted into the WNBA.
"Lisa was a very versatile guard ... and she was the glue to that team," McCallie said. "And when Cindy Blodgett was the nation's leading scorer, that's a pretty big deal. Cindy had 30 points against Alabama when they were undefeated and ranked No. 10 in the country. That exists."
Players like Vachon, who holds the UMaine career record for assists and led the Black Bears to an NCAA tournament victory in 1999, Rachel Bouchard, who was a two-time North Atlantic Conference Player of the Year for UMaine and is the program's second-leading scorer, and Emily Ellis, who is a top-10 scorer all time at UMaine and is the first member of the Black Bears to have her number retired, also have made their cases. So has Anna DeWolfe, the former Greely star and three-time first-team All-Atlantic 10 selection, who just finished her senior season at Fordham.
One of the players at the top of the list, however, said Holmes has put herself in front of everyone.
"I'd probably have to give Mackenzie the edge at this point," Manning said. "The number of points she's scoring at that level and rebounds and the teams she's playing against, that's not an easy accomplishment.
"It is amazing. ... It's super impressive to be in that league and be at the top."
McCallie, who coached in the Big Ten with Michigan State for seven years and took the Spartans to the national championship game in 2005, said Holmes's key to dominating against the country's best teams and players has been her versatility and mental toughness on the court.
"Her skill set has gotten diverse, being able to go left and right, and play outside and inside," she said. "Poise is the word I would use. Most players can get rushed, and they can get double-teamed and they can get just forced out of their game. I never see that with Mackenzie. She stays steady. ... You can count on her. These are remarkable and important traits, they shouldn't be taken for granted."
Gary Fifield, who coached women's basketball at the University for Southern Maine for 27 years and ran camps that Holmes attended as a child, marveled at the Indiana senior's progression.
"So many people don't understand how important proper footwork is, whether it's how to post up or how to step into your shot or how to set up your shot," he said. "That really is what's helping her become such a great player. ... She makes it look easy. She doesn't force things, she takes what's there for her."
It's led to a whirlwind of attention and honors for Holmes, who, in a season that's gone by as quickly as a well-executed fast break, hasn't had much time to let the praise sink in.
"I don't think I have wrapped my head around it, just because the season's so busy and you're playing game after game, so you just kind of move on when those things come," Holmes said during a Zoom chat. "But it is pretty cool. To be able to represent Maine in that way has been really special for me, and the outpouring of support I've gotten from back home has also been really special to me."
Asked if she feels she's made a case for being the best, Holmes gave a smile before sidestepping the question.
"I'll leave that up to the people," she said.
The consideration, however, is flattering.
"For my name to even be considered with some of those names, men's and women's, it's really an honor," she said. "I know what that means to have my name put in those comparisons. I recognize that and I'm very thankful for it."