Matt Rossignol has adopted Michigan State as his team to ride through this year’s NCAA basketball tournament. The former University of Maine basketball star’s reasons are personal but he doesn’t mind telling.
He scored 23 points the day Maine beat Michigan State 84-81 at the Bangor Auditorium. The Maine men beat Michigan State in basketball? It was 27 years ago. Jeff Holmes came off the bench to score 21 points on seven 3-pointers. Maine took its first lead very late in the game.
Rossignol, the Maine-born shooting guard from way up north in tiny Van Buren, hit two from the foul line to keep the Big 10 team at bay. The victory might have been the most memorable of Rossignol’s college career.
But that’s not why he’s following the Spartans during March Madness. “Tom Izzo (the current Michigan State head coach) was an assistant on that team,” said Rossignol the other day. “And Jim Boylen (a Rossignol teammate) became an assistant there.”
Rossignol didn’t have to continue. He had personalized his adopted team. This is what college basketball fans must do in Maine because the state’s lone NCAA Division I program has never qualified for the month-long tournament that has become a national obsession.
Find a team from elsewhere and make a connection. Find a Mainer playing on a team from elsewhere.
That worked when Nik Caner-Medley of Portland was a freshman at Maryland in the 2006 tournament. Or when Darren Mastropaolo of Falmouth led underdog Bucknell into the tournament in 2005 and 2006. Or Tom Knight, the Dirigo High graduate of Dixfield playing for Notre Dame in last year’s tourney. You might have cheered for Cheverus graduate Indiana Faithfull and his 15th-seeded Wofford College when it plays No. 2 Michigan on Thursday in the Midwest Regional. Except Faithfull left the team in February and returned to his native Australia.
It’s not always easy to adopt a team. Geographic connection? There’s Providence, just a few hours down I-95 in Rhode Island. After its hockey fans watched Providence eliminate Maine from the Hockey East tournament, many stuck around Schneider Arena to watch and cheer Providence’s win over Creighton for the Big East championship on big-screen televisions.
There’s Massachusetts, but the Minutemen seem to be a tough sell. Maybe it has to do with that secession thing in 1820 when Mainers voted their independence.
Harvard without Jeremy Lin? No real emotional tugs for the Ivy League schools here. Although that wasn’t the case 25 years ago when 16th-seeded Princeton nearly upset top-seeded Georgetown, coached by the outspoken John Thompson.
Rossignol was a senior in 1989 and being at Maine might have related to the lack of respect Princeton was getting. But then, Maine was 9-19 that season, the first for Coach Rudy Keeling. Maine played in the competitive North Atlantic Conference with Northeastern, Boston University, Siena and Niagara. Princeton was the Ivy League champion and Maine was 7-11 in its conference.
Rossignol hadn’t set out to watch the Princeton-Georgetown game. “We looked at Georgetown then as kind of a thug team. We wanted whoever was playing Georgetown to win.”
But Princeton? No chance. Rossignol learned that Princeton was winning and tuned into the televised game. Maine, for all its flaws that season, had strong guards in Rossignol, Todd Hanson and Dean Smith. Princeton’s guards and small forwards negated Georgetown’s height advantage by pulling the Hoyas’ defense away from the basket.
Georgetown won that day, in the last seconds. Princeton won its own victory. Rossignol cheered that day, too. Princeton is not in this year’s tournament.
It was an eventful senior season. Rossignol was married. His wife was pregnant with their first child. That pregnancy became a much bigger story in mid-February when Siena was leaving behind an outbreak of measles on its New York campus. Rossignol was advised by his wife’s doctor to not play.
“I had grown up that year,” said Rossignol. “Now it wasn’t about me. I was looking at the bigger picture, and that was my wife and our baby.”
Rossignol had a streak of 106 consecutive games as a starter for Maine. He decided he would sit out the game with Siena to protect his wife. “I didn’t want to hear that there was a 90 percent chance my wife wouldn’t get measles. I needed to hear it was 100.”
Siena was 13-0 at that point. Coach Mike Deane, out of respect for Rossignol, was prepared to forfeit the game. Rossignol got the assurance he needed from doctors. The Siena team was not contagious and the game was played in an empty arena. He played and Maine lost, 76-49.
Siena played in front of seven empty arenas to finish its season. It qualified for its first NCAA tournament and upset Stanford in the first round. Rossignol might have had Siena as his team to watch this month.
Except it’s not in the tournament.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:[email protected]