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.
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."