Just when women's basketball was sure it had choreographed a bunch of sleek moves for its NCAA Final Four in Austin, Texas, last week, center stage was seized by a stout-legged ensemble that engaged in a curious blend of slam dancing and The Tennessee Waltz. As hoop aesthetes turned away in droves, the Tennessee Lady Volunteers slowly but surely dismantled the Lady Techsters of Louisiana Tech. The only thing agreeable about Tennessee's 67-44 victory on Sunday was that it gave coach Pat Head Summitt her first national championship after eight visits to the Final Four.
Summitt had lost 11 of 12 games to Tech, including three in Final Fours. But No. 13 proved lucky for Tennessee, which got that many points from each of three players—forward Bridgette Gordon, center Sheila Frost and freshman guard Tonya Edwards, who was named the tournament MVP.
Tech had not been held to so few points since 1974, when the Lady Techsters lost to Southeastern Louisiana in their first varsity season. Against the Lady Vols, they shot 33% and committed 20 turnovers. "Tennessee played as good a defensive game as I've ever seen or played against," said Tech coach Leon Barmore. "We never got any easy shots. In fact, the points we got were well earned."
This year's Final Four was supposed to look like anything but a scene from They Shoot Horses, Don't They? A final between Texas, the defending champion, and high-flying Long Beach State seemed all but preordained. Austin was so enthusiastic about the prospect of its Lady Longhorns being the queens of an up-tempo ball that the 15,303 seats at Erwin Center had been sold out in advance for Friday's semifinal games and Sunday's final.
April 5, 1987
Going into the Final Four, Long Beach had a 33-2 record and led the nation in scoring average with 95.8 points per game—3.2 more than men's leader Nevada-Las Vegas, which had the benefit of the three-point shot. (Beginning next season, the women will have the same 19'9" three-point shot as the men.) All-America Cindy Brown, a 6'2" senior center, had averaged 27.9 points per game, with a high of 60 against San Jose State, and sophomore guard Penny Toler averaged 21.6.
The No. 1-ranked Lady Longhorns had been even more intimidating, winning 65 of their last 66 games. Even Texans seemed embarrassed that the Lady Longhorns would be playing for the national title on their home court before the largest crowd ever to see a women's basketball game. Texas had two All-Americas, sophomore center Clarissa Davis, who was poised to repeat her tournament MVP performance of last year, and senior forward Andrea Lloyd, who was determined to end her collegiate career by winning a national championship.
Veteran observers of the women's game hoped that the pyrotechnics generated by a Texas-Long Beach final on national television would galvanize the sport. But leave it to Summitt and Barmore, possibly the two best strategists in women's basketball, to throw a bunch of X's and O's into the machinery.
Barmore's "Technicians" played a near-perfect game against the Lady Longhorns in the semifinals. They shot 74% in the second half, when they refused to surrender the lead after Texas had drawn even three times. Lloyd was held, to 7 points in her last game. Davis got 24, but her eight-foot jumper, which would have tied the score with 30 seconds left, was blocked by center Tori Harrison. Amid an eerie murmur, Tech won 79-75.
"We worked so well together," said Tech's All-America point guard Teresa Weatherspoon, who had 19 points, 11 assists and 7 steals and used the 30-second shot clock with metronomic precision. "It was like we cut the crowd's vocal cords."
In fact, fans who had longed for a Texas-Long Beach showdown had already been quieted when Tennessee upset the 49ers 74-64 in the first semifinal. Considering that this was Long Beach State's first Final Four, the 49ers were certainly cocky. Toler had said that her experience going up against the likes of Len Bias and Johnny Dawkins and Michael Jackson on Washington, D.C. playgrounds had carried more pressure than the tournament. "In street ball, everybody screams right at you and talks to you like a dog," she said. "At least, if you play bad in front of these people, you never have to see them again."
Long Beach broke its pregame huddle with the cry, "Kick ass!" But on the opening tip, Brown got knocked on her derriere by 170-pound Kathy Spinks, and the 49ers soon found themselves in a half-court game with a Tennesssee team that seemed to anticipate their every move. "We knew their plays the second they called them out," said Gordon. "We even knew that when Toler goes between her legs with the ball, she is going to shoot, no matter what. She probably doesn't even know that."
The 49ers shot just 39% from the floor, while Gordon and Edwards, who each had 21, hit clutch baskets down the stretch. "They were busting at the end," said Toler. "There was nothing you could do." Brown scored 27 points but had trouble getting open at crucial moments. "The physical aspect of the game was ridiculous," said Brown. "There were a lot of cheap shots. I thought, You may be big and thick, but I'm skinny and quick. Of course, I'd bump, too, with corn-fed chicks like that."
Indeed, Summitt decided two years ago that she couldn't win it all without stronger and more explosive athletes than the ones she had become accustomed to recruiting. For inside punch, she got Gordon, a 6-foot sophomore forward who is nicknamed Miss T because of the gold chains she favors off the court. This season she landed the 5'10" Edwards, who's known as Ice T for the way she hits her jumper under pressure.
Tennessee proved it had talent when it snapped Texas' 40-game winning streak in Austin in December. After the Lady Longhorns avenged the loss three weeks later in Miami, Tennessee's play began to deteriorate, until the Vols dropped five of six games. In desperation Summitt benched four starters. "I didn't realize how much pressure they were feeling," she said. "I finally said, 'I don't expect you to win the national championship. I don't expect you to be in Austin. Let's just take one game at a time.' That's when we came together."
The win over Long Beach inspired more confidence. Not until then did Summitt think she had the athletes to match up with Louisiana Tech. When Barmore said he expected a "backstreet brawl," Summitt warned, "Hey, we fed 'em corn at midnight."
Actually, Summitt watched films until 3 a.m. on Friday. "When I went to bed," she said, "it was the first time that I felt I knew their offensive system."
Although nearly 6,000 no-shows meant the aisles were clear for the crowd of 9,823 at Sunday's final, Louisiana Tech's passing lanes were jammed. Gordon repeatedly took away the post from Tech forward Nora Lewis, and the Vol centers bumped Harrison out of her shooting groove. When Weatherspoon, finally showing fatigue after her 40-minute effort against Texas, missed a wide-open layup with the scored tied at 19-19, Tennessee went on a 10-0 run. After that, Tech was taken so completely out of its offense that it twice went more than six minutes without a field goal.
"If I had been watching on TV, I probably would have turned it off," said Tech assistant Jennifer White. "It was not a pretty game. We feel real bad because some people who saw that game might say women can't play."
Not Summitt. "This tournament was testimony that X's and O's do work," she said. "Even when you have the great athletes, you still have to have the execution." The witnesses just wish it could have been faster.