So many people were wandering around Los Angeles last week saying that this year's AIAW tournament would be the one at which women's basketball finally "arrived" that you half expected a voice to come over the Pauley Pavilion P.A. system proclaiming, "Women's basketball...now arriving from obscurity on track seven, upper concourse." And, in truth, last Saturday night it happened. In front of the largest crowd ever to see a women's championship game, women's basketball came whistling into the station. And when it had finally slowed down enough to see who was inside, there was UCLA in the driver's seat. Seems as if we've been down this track before.
The Bruins, who happened to be hosting the tournament, scorched Maryland 90-74 in the championship game on Saturday night before 9,351 spectators and NBC's television cameras. They did it largely by riding along behind highballing 5'9" Forward Ann Meyers, a four-time All-America who is probably the best UCLA basketball player with a girl's name since Gail Goodrich.
Against Maryland, Meyers scored 20 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, made eight steals and handed out nine assists. From his seat in the bleachers, her father would bellow, "Attaboy, Annie!" when she did something incredibly wonderful. Which was most of the time. "People ask me what it's like to play in Annie's shadow," says UCLA Center Heidi Nestor. "Annie is such a completely unselfish player that she casts no shadow. She's so good she doesn't need to."
Even Meyers was unable to steady UCLA's rocky first half against the any-thing-but-slow-moving Terrapins. After rushing to a 26-13 lead in the first 10 minutes, the Bruins turned over the ball four straight times, allowing Maryland to get back into the game with 12 unanswered points. "They were forcing us to play at their speed," said UCLA Coach Billie Moore later. "Once we regained our composure on offense, we were able to keep them from getting the ball inside, and that seemed to take something out of them." Maryland Forward Debbie Stewart, who came off the bench to score 18 points, was more succinct. "It seemed like UCLA knew our offense better than we did," she said. "They were scrappier than we were. When a loose ball was on the floor, so was UCLA."
April 3, 1978
The two teams had met during the regular season, and Maryland had won at home 92-88. In fact, the Bruins lost three of five games on a midwinter trip East—their only defeats in 23 regular-season games—but Moore credits the tour with helping her squad realize what was possible for them this year. "The trip helped us get a better idea of what our strengths and weaknesses were," the coach says. "It's easy to get isolated out here on the West Coast and to start thinking that the basketball in another part of the country is much better than the kind we play."
The trip was a chancy undertaking for Moore, who is in her first season at UCLA. However, she had a 146-17 record in eight seasons at Cal State-Fullerton and had coached the U.S. at the Montreal Olympics before replacing Ellen Mosher, who now coaches at the University of Minnesota. "A lot of first-year coaches would have wanted to really do well on a trip like the one we took East," says Nestor, "but Billie said she didn't care if we went 5-0 or 0-5 as long as we learned something. If she had placed a lot of emphasis on that trip, we probably would have peaked before the tournament began instead of when we needed to."
Nestor is another of Moore's success stories. The husky 6'1" blonde center (heights, but not weights, are listed in programs for women's games) frequently had differed with Mosher last season and had nearly decided to quit the team when Moore was hired. Under Moore, Nestor regained her confidence and was instrumental in the Bruins' two victories last week. She scored 22 points in UCLA's 85-77 semifinal win over Montclair (N.J.) State Thursday night, and Maryland's powerful 6'3" freshman center, Kris Kirchner, connected on only seven of 21 shots over her in the championship game.
In Maryland's 90-85 victory over Wayland Baptist College in the other semifinal game, the 19-year-old Kirchner had scored 30 points—20 of them in the second half—and had fouled out Wayland's awesomely gifted Jill Rankin. The most emotional of the Terrapins, Kirchner had been so annoyed with the cliquishness she found on the squad when she arrived at College Park that she feuded with team leader Tara Heiss until late in the season, the two stars refusing even to talk to each other. Kirchner's temperamental approach to the game is to some extent a result of the teasing she took from boys her age on the neighborhood playgrounds in Scotch Plains, N.J., when she was a gawky 5'9" 11-year-old. She has not forgotten that, and neither has she forgotten what it was like when she returned to the playgrounds a few years later. "I went back with my basketball and said to those same guys who had mocked me, 'In your face!' "
While Kirchner was rumbling around Pauley giving facials like no one ever got at Elizabeth Arden, the AIAW was quietly congratulating itself for having sold network TV rights for the finals to NBC. The fee was described only as being "considerably less than $25,000," a paltry sum by the men's standards but a beginning. The AIAW was obviously pleased—as it had every reason to be—to remind people that only three years ago the finals were played in the Madison College gym in Harrisonburg, Va.
This was also the first year the AIAW had used the final-four format of the men's tournament. Previously its tournament had been a grueling 16-team, four-day shootout, with the host school automatically invited to play along because, well, it was their ball, right? And finally, this was the first year that the big schools—with all their money—went head to head with the small colleges and won.
The Maryland-UCLA final marked the first time that two traditional men's college basketball powers had made it to the championship game. Immaculata, a small (enrollment 500) Catholic school in Pennsylvania, had dominated the early years of the AIAW tournament, winning three consecutive titles and finishing second two times. When Immaculata finally was toppled, it was by Delta State of Cleveland, Miss. (enrollment 3,200), which went on to win the next three championships. But this year, for the first time, neither Immaculata nor Delta State made it to the finals, and when the AIAW splits into a Division I, II and III setup similar to the NCAA's for the 1979-'80 season there is a good chance that one or both of those powerhouses will become second-class citizens in a sport they helped put on the map.
Perhaps the best indication of how far women's basketball had come when it "arrived" at Pauley last week was that four years ago Wayland Baptist was the only school in the tournament that gave scholarships. This year Montclair State was the only school that did not.
What Montclair was happy to offer, however, was 5'10" Carol (The Blaze) Blazejowski, the most relentlessly exciting performer in the history of women's basketball. The Blaze averaged 38.5 points this season before finishing her career with 40 points over Meyers' head in the Squaws' 85-77 loss to UCLA on Thursday and 41 more in a 90-88 overtime defeat of Wayland Baptist in the consolation game Saturday night. That brought her career total to 3,199 points, only 468 behind Pete Maravich's collegiate record of 3,667.
Whenever a UCLA team wins a national championship strange things seem to happen. Any minute now, for example, we can expect to hear that Anita Ortega, the Bruins' catalytic guard who scored 23 points in the final, has changed her name to Oregano Abdul-Jamal, or that the bloodthirsty UCLA alumni association has driven Gary Cunningham, the Bruins' men's coach, whose team had a 25-3 record in his first season, to coach the Alabama Vocational & Disc Jockey Training Institute, and that Billie Moore had been installed as the Wizardess of Westwood.
Meanwhile, Ann Meyers is still out there somewhere, signing autographs for dozens of little girls who want to grow up someday to be just like her. Yeah, maybe women's basketball has arrived at that, even if they won't reveal how much the women weigh.