At one end of the court, Louisiana Tech's Janice Lawrence—the 6'3" Mississippi Marvel, perhaps the nation's best woman center—was sinking deft bank shots off the glass. Teammate Jennifer White was looping in arching 20-foot jumpers as if shooting over a pine grove back home in Rascaltown, Tenn. At the other end of the floor, Southern California's phenomenal freshman, Cheryl Miller, was rebounding, shooting, stealing, scrapping and shot-blocking. Her team's Twin Towers, 6'3" juniors Pam and Paula McGee, were looming before Tech like a city skyline. And so, with 6:20 left in last Sunday's NCAA women's basketball final at the Scope in Norfolk, Va., the top-ranked Lady Techsters and the No. 2-rated Women of Troy were in a whale of a battle, tied 59-59. "Finally women's basketball has a genuine championship game," Tech publicist Keith Prince had said. "Every year in the past it seems there's been one great team and no one else even close."
For the last two seasons, Louisiana Tech had been that team, easily winning national titles. And despite the loss of two first-team All-Americas from last year's champs, the Lady Techsters had rolled to a 31-1 record this season, winning by an average of 26.4 points per game. As Georgia Coach Andy Landers said, "They beat good teams bad."
Going into Sunday's final, having blown out Old Dominion 71-55 in the semifinals on Friday, Tech had won 30 games in a row and 100 of its last 102. But in two regular-season games against USC, the Techsters had gotten only a split, losing 64-58 at home on Dec. 4 and then winning 58-56 in Costa Mesa, Calif. on Jan. 22. That hinted at trouble. "I think they should be scared after that last one," said Center Pam McGee on Saturday. "Our whole team played terribly and we still only lost by two." And Southern Cal had shown itself ready for the NCAA finals by steamrolling Georgia 81-57 in the semis.
For the first half on Sunday, however, the Women of Troy were in trouble, courtesy of White's uncanny outside touch—5 for 5 from outer Tidewater—and Lawrence's inside scoring: 17 points. "Off the glass, Janice rates with Sam Jones or anybody else, ever, man or woman," says Tech Co-Head Coach Leon Barmore. Tech's defense, meanwhile, was forcing USC into hurried shots and turnovers. The Lady Techsters opened a 13-point lead at one point and, at halftime, were ahead 37-26.
Southern Cal wasn't rattled. The tournament's most talented, spectacular club, the Women of Troy were also its most confident. "Someone said the only team that could beat 'SC is 'SC, and I think that's true," Paula McGee said. It was no fluke that the Trojans had entered the game with a 30-2 record. At halftime they looked to a sign they had made up during the season: USCOPE, it read. "USC-Scope, USC-cope," said Coach Linda Sharp. USC would cope in the second half by using a press. "We hadn't run one all year," said Sharp later, adding, "We hadn't been down by 11 points all year, either."
Sharp, a 32-year-old former American literature teacher in her sixth year of coaching at USC, had brought the tournament's youngest starting team to Norfolk—two freshmen, a sophomore and two juniors. But four of the five are current or future first-team All-Americas, and last week their youth showed up as insouciance, not jitters. At a Thursday press conference Pam McGee casually bobbed her head to the beat of a Walk man even while fielding reporters' questions. After noticing the other three teams' intense attitude toward her sport, she said, "I can't believe they think basketball is that important." Miller and the twins spent part of that afternoon clowning their way through a TV spot about the Kodak All-America team.
"Don't strut your lip like that," Paula said to her sister. "Ask me a question so I can bring you down."
"Pam, you're supposed to say, 'I is,' " said Cheryl, taking the mike. "Now, you be twins?"
"How tall you be?" snapped Pam.
"You all better hope no tape be on," said Paula.
Kidding aside, the Trojans are as articulate a bunch as you'll find in sports. The McGee twins, from Flint, Mich., are outstanding students—Paula in industrial engineering and Pam in economics—as well as a quick, lissome frontcourt duo that is without peer, at least offensively. Miller, another good student, came to USC from Riverside (Calif.) Polytechnic High School last fall as merely the most heralded freshman in the nation.
That women's college basketball needs a glamour team like USC was clear from Sunday's final: It drew a micro-Scope crowd of only 7,387 fans, well under the arena's 10,500 capacity. No one, however, left early.
USC's press was effective immediately in the second half. In contrast to Tech, a disciplined, veteran team on the court and a quiet group off it, the Trojans don't hide their emotions. They were clearly fired up. Miller and sophomore Guard Cynthia Cooper cut into the passing lanes for rapid-fire steals, and Cooper started hitting jumpers. When Paula McGee made a layup, stole the inbound pass and sank another layup with 7:10 left, the game was even at 55-55.
Having been wholly ineffective (three points) in the second half against pressure provided by USC, Lawrence fouled out with 1:46 to go and the Trojans leading 68-65. Meanwhile the 6'2" Miller had been shifted onto the 5'9" White and had shut her down. Miller, who had led the Lady Trojans in scoring (20.3 points per game), steals (111) and blocked shots (75) and had ranked second in assists and third in rebounds this season, was carrying the team again. Her 14 first-half points had kept USC in the game. Here she was diving for loose balls, taking charges and following hoops with whoops. "Cheryl's flamboyant, and it rubs off," says Pam McGee. "You see her being so vital, so dynamic, and you want to be part of it."
The fans were missing only one aspect of Miller Time. While she has certainly shown her stuff this season, she hasn't yet shown her stuff. Probably the only woman ever to dunk in organized competition—twice in high school—she hasn't slammed even once for the Trojans. And because of Sharp, Miller wouldn't dare try a dunk in a game as close as Sunday's. "She'd noose me," says Miller. "She'd kill me. She'd have a heart attack."
Sharp had palpitations when her star freshman went to the foul line for a one-and-one try with six seconds remaining and the Lady Trojans ahead 69-67. As it turns out, Miller is human. Her first shot misfired, bouncing off the back of the rim, and Tech seized the rebound.
But instead of calling time-out, the Lady Techsters rushed the ball upcourt. "Our rebounders held the ball too long, that was the only problem," Barmore said later. At the buzzer, Tech Point Guard Kim Mulkey put up a desperation 20-footer. It barely reached the rim. Tech's 30-game streak was history. So was USC's first national championship.
What Miller had done was remarkable. She had scored 27 points, blocked four shots, made four steals and grabbed nine rebounds. And she had done so against Tech senior Lori Scott, generally considered the finest defensive player in the nation. "It's Easter Sunday and I love Sundays," Miller said with a smile. Sharp, when asked if this had been Miller's best game, also smiled. "I'd say maybe there were two games this season when Cheryl wasn't this intense."
As for next season? "Our expectations of ourselves are even higher," said Pam. Added Sharp, "I believe we'll come back and live up to our potential." Alas, back to the old days. One great team and no one else even close.