BANGOR — The errant pass went out of bounds and Cherrish Wallace knew who to blame. A luminous smile replaced her usual seriousness as she patted her chest.
My fault, my fault. I’ll do better.
On the court Wednesday night, University of Maine players returned the grin. The game of basketball has become fun again. In five short months, their newest teammate has shown every minute she plays that intensity and joy can go hand-in-hand. Wallace is making up for nearly five years of lost time.
“I’m fortunate,” said Wallace. “I feel blessed.”
Say hello to Maine’s 24-year-old senior point guard, and say goodbye. She played her first game with the Black Bears in the first week of January and will play her last sometime in March.
The player who was a mystery woman on Media Day last fall has become a catalyst to Maine’s turnaround season. The Black Bears (15-13, 9-6 America East) beat UMass- Lowell 84-65 at the Cross Insurance Center on Wednesday and end their regular season Saturday at New Hampshire.
For the first time in nine years, Maine heads to the conference tournament March 7 in Albany, N.Y., expecting to win its quarterfinal game. A year ago, Maine’s team bus hurtled across the median on Interstate 95 in Massachusetts and crashed en route to a weeknight game in Boston. The bruised team played New Hampshire that weekend and lost, then voted not to play in the tournament. They needed to mend.
Wallace wasn’t on that bus. She was doing her own healing under far different circumstances, far from Maine. A stress fracture in her right leg that stubbornly took its time to heal in 2008 took her off the court at Baylor. She got her degree in general studies and education in the spring of 2012. She got her NCAA championship ring with Brittney Griner and her other Baylor teammates that same year.
It’s one of the eight championship rings in Wallace’s collection, including league titles, and certainly the biggest.
Wallace, 5-foot-6, never played after her freshman year. She took a medical retirement, which meant she kept her scholarship but wasn’t counted against Baylor’s allotment. She became a student assistant coach.
Wallace chose Baylor over San Jose State and Long Beach State, both closer to her home in Pasadena, Calif., when Richard Barron, now the Maine coach, recruited her. He was the associate head coach to Kim Mulkey. Wallace liked what she heard from Barron. Even more, she liked the idea of playing for Mulkey. “She played my position. I knew I could learn a lot more from her.”
That Wallace believed she could match Mulkey’s white-hot intensity was another plus. In her freshman season, she saw another side to Mulkey that further tightened the bond with the head coach and also with Barron. The mother of Morghan Medlock, Wallace’s step-sister and a Baylor teammate, was murdered in Little Rock, Ark., while Baylor was getting ready to play at Oregon. Mulkey, Barron and the team embraced Medlock, who wanted the game played. That day it was the best way to deal with her grief.
“It brought us all even closer,” Barron said Wednesday. Five years later, last Sept. 1, Wallace called Barron in Orono. The screws anchoring the titanium rod in her right leg had been removed and for the first time she could move and run virtually pain free. She picked up a basketball.
At some point she will make working with children a full-time commitment, but her passion to play had been rekindled.
She thought of playing professionally in Europe. That’s why she called Barron. His Maine team is a melting pot of Europeans and Americans. Did he have contacts overseas who could help?
“I told her it would be tough. She hadn’t played in 41/2 years. There was really no film on her. She had some eligibility left. I was thinking of finding an NAIA program for her,” said Barron.
Then it dawned: He had an unclaimed scholarship. Within 10 days she was in Orono. She’s enrolled in graduate classes. Paperwork was completed with the NCAA, and after a delay, she was declared eligible for Maine’s second semester. She spent the first semester lifting weights on her own and playing with soon-to-be teammates away from the coaching staff.
It didn’t take senior guard Rachele Burns and the others long to realize this tough, feisty woman could play.
“All we had to see was how she passed the ball and how fast she was,” said Burns. Wallace is two years older than Burns, who endured four knee surgeries and understood what Wallace was trying to do. Wallace is six years older than the freshmen. “I can tell I’m older because I don’t joke around as much as they do anymore,” said Wallace, grinning.
Wednesday was senior night. No one from Wallace’s family could make the cross-country trip. Instead, Barron and his wife and their three children walked with Wallace, holding her bouquet of flowers, to the center of the court and the applause from some 1,500 fans. She got a standing ovation when she left the game about two hours later with 15 points and five assists.
Wallace had fouled out. It’s been so long since she could play so hard.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: