In the wake of Louisiana Tech's 56-54 triumph over Auburn on Sunday for the women's NCAA championship, Teresa Weatherspoon stepped up a ladder and out of character. In the first place, she was high over the Tacoma Dome floor—she had spent most of the afternoon hunkered down on that same floor in an unyielding defensive crouch. And in the second place, 'Spoon was soaring solo. While she cut down the net at one hoop, her teammates were hacking away at the twine on the other. "No one would come with me," Weatherspoon said sheepishly, "so I said what the heck."
The Lady Techsters were more than willing to cede 'Spoon an Easter basket all her own. For while senior forward Erica Westbrooks was providing the points—a game-high 25—Weatherspoon, a 5'8" whirling dervish from Pineland, Texas, was performing a minor miracle. Auburn's Ruthie Bolton had taken 'Spoon for 16 points in the first half, as the Lady Tigers grabbed a 31-19 lead. But over the last 20 minutes, Weatherspoon flawlessly directed Tech's attack (seven assists, one turnover) and energetically disrupted Bolton's (no points, six turnovers). Weatherspoon said later of her offense: "I love pressure. Pressure makes you a better basketball player." And by way of explaining her sensational defense, she said, "It upsets me when somebody scores like that on me. In the second half, I'm out to shut them down."
"She's the greatest point guard we've ever had," said Tech assistant coach Kim Mulkey-Robertson, a member of the 1984 Olympic team. "All I can do for Teresa is fetch her water or anything else she wants." That the pivotal player in the title bout scored only five points was fitting for this Final Four. These were the top-scoring teams in the land, each accustomed to toting up more than 84 points a game. But at Tacoma they averaged a mere 60 on 41.2% shooting, and Sunday afternoon's game, while electric, was the lowest-scoring final ever. "In the second half, Tech became the aggressor defensively," said Auburn coach Joe Ciampi. "That was the key."
Of course, Weatherspoon wasn't the only power on D. Westbrooks came up with six steals and limited Auburn's limping All-America, Vickie Orr, to 11 points. Her own buckets came mostly on floating bank shots in the middle of Auburn's matchup zone, and her slow-cranking, behind-the-right-ear release proved effective, if not aesthetically pleasing. "They tried to change the way I shoot when I came in as a freshman," said the 6'3" Westbrooks, from Camden, Ark. "But it kept going in, so they gave up." Named the tournament's outstanding player, Westbrooks drew the ultimate praise from her coach, Leon Barmore, as he spoke to a hundred or so rooters from Ruston, La., home of Louisiana Tech, after the game. "Off the court, Erica is a lovely lady," he said. "On the court, she is vicious."
April 10, 1988
It was Barmore's first national title—officially, anyway. As Tech's associate head coach in 1981 and '82, he had masterminded those two championship teams, but titular head Sonja Hogg got the credit. "Miss Hogg never kept me from doing what I wanted to do, and we had some really great moments," said Barmore. "But there were problems with the setup." When Hogg retired three seasons ago, the Ruston-born, Tech-schooled Barmore was elevated to the top post, and since then the Lady Techsters have won 90% of their games. In a survey of coaches and sportswriters by the Shreveport (La.) Times earlier this year, he was voted the nation's top strategist in women's basketball.
Although Barmore, 43, bears a strong physical resemblance to actor Tony Randall, the comparison ends there. One opposing coach said she would "as soon face Darth Vader" as Barmore, and F. Jay Taylor, Tech's president at the time, before promoting him, had a two-hour discussion with Barmore on the need for emotional control. In Tacoma he gestured wildly on the court, but off it he kept up a consistent, engaging front—he attributes his restraint to age, a stricter diet, jogging and George Jones tapes—and the Lady Techsters played their hearts out for him. "He tries to get you mad at him," said guard Angela Lawson, "but we know he loves us to death."
Indeed, with 4:58 left and Tech still trailing Auburn 49-45, Barmore used part of a timeout to let his charges know just that. His only churlish moment on Sunday came when he was asked about becoming the first male coach to triumph in the seven years of the NCAA women's tournament. According to a study by Vivian Acosta and Linda Carpenter of Brooklyn College, the percentage of women in women's basketball coaching jobs has declined from 90% to 58.5% since 1972, and some would like to keep the position a distaff preserve. Barmore had high praise for a few of his female peers, and no patience with others. "I resent women who have something about them that didn't want me to win today," he said.
The victory all but erased memories of '87, when the Lady Techsters were bedeviled by Tennessee in the NCAA finals, losing 67-44. Tech began the exorcism on Friday, when it faced that same Tennessee club in the semifinals. The top-ranked Lady Vols, dubbed "cornfed chicks" last year by a losing player smarting from a hefty hip check or two, went for a sleeker look this season. "I'm not having any fat girls on my team," coach Pat Head Summit! proclaimed.
But some girth might have helped on the glass, which Tech dominated, 45-36. Lady Techster center Venus Lacy outweighed (195 pounds to 175) and out-boarded (10-6) her counterpart Sheila Frost, holding her shotless in the first half and outscoring her overall 11-3. Tech forward Nora Lewis, who had undergone oral surgery earlier in the week—"They popped the teeth in place, wired me up, and I was ready to go"—took the bite out of Tennessee's high-scoring Bridgette Gordon, holding her to 15 points while piling up 13 points and 10 rebounds herself. The Lady Vols never led in the 68-59 loss.
In Friday's nightcap, Ciampi had a couple of anxious moments before Auburn conquered Long Beach State 68-55. The first came in the locker room before the game, when he allowed the Lady Tigers to play 10 minutes of Pictionary, a board game using pictures, for relaxation. "I got worried when Ruthie drew the clue, 'six feet under,' " Ciampi said. The second moment came midway through the second half when flashy 49er guard Penny Toler, already shaking and baking, started making. With 6:31 to play, Toler slashed in and pulled up, hitting a jumper that gave the Beach a 50-48 lead.
"My shot is sometimes suspect," said the All-America Toler, who wound up with 19 points. "Every now and then I've got to put out an APB on it. But my ball handling never deserts me." In the second half, though, Toler saw her legerdemain take it on the lam, and she turned the ball over three times. Bolton scored 12 of Auburn's last 20 points, including 6 of 6 free throws, and helped her team show the feisty 49ers the door. Ruthie received words of encouragement from her sister Mae Ola, a senior forward, as she repeatedly went to the line. "Ruthie," Mae Ola said, "you know what you can do."
The on-court Boltons also got the backing of a bevy of off-court Boltons—the 20-child, 57-grandchild brood of Linwood and Leola, who all made the trek to Tacoma from McLain, Miss. Linwood, a 65-year-old Baptist preacher, missed speaking to his parishioners for the first time in 37 Easters, though he did deliver a sermon to the Lady Tigers at the hotel before the game and a few impromptu pep talks here and there. "When he talks about basketball, it's just like he's preaching," said Mae Ola. "He could be a cheerleader. It's funny, a grown man getting excited about a game. It's really special, too." Ciampi, who says he learned how to handle crowds when he recruited the Boltons, also picked up an important tip from the reverend: "Patience."
That lesson seemed to have eluded the Lady Techsters in the first half of Sunday's final. Weatherspoon, moving a few beats ahead of herself, picked up two early fouls, which forced Barmore out of his bread-and-butter man-to-man. As Auburn's margin swelled, visions of last year's embarrassment began to haunt the Tech coach. But his players didn't panic, and Lewis sensed a communal resolve at halftime. "Nobody had to lift anybody up," she said later. "Everybody was up."
And soon thereafter, Weatherspoon was down. Her palms practically scraped the floor as she greeted Bolton at half-court. "The lower she goes," said Barmore, "the more determined she gets."
Against Auburn, Weatherspoon's powers of persuasion were there for 8,448 fans and a network audience to appreciate. With three minutes and two seconds to play, she flicked a pass to the corner, where Lawson nailed a J to tie the game at 51. Forty-nine seconds later, she picked Bolton clean and set Westbrooks up for a layup to give Tech its first lead of the game. "She did a good job of roughing me up, turning me," Bolton said afterward. Orr gamely retied it on a post-up shot, then a penetrating Spoon fed Lawson again and this time, with 39 seconds left, her swish from the wing put Tech on top for keeps, 55-53. "I've dreamed of doing something big in a championship game," Lawson said. "I wanted to be the one to take it."
Louisiana Tech is loaded with just that type: otherwise polite young women who want to crack the game open at crunch time. That's how a school of 10,000 in a piney, rustic town of 21,000 has been able to hang tough in a sport now mostly dominated by mega-universities. The smaller powers of yore—Immaculata, Delta State—have faded out. But Tech has endured, and in Tacoma, it prevailed.