At 6'3" and 185 pounds, Lusia (Lucy) Harris is a towering talent who last year led Mississippi's Delta State University to the only unbeaten record (28-0) in women's—or men's—college basketball and the championship of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. And while the 19-year-old sophomore center was scoring 25.3 points per game, making 65.5% of her shots and pulling in 400 rebounds, she also was Exhibit A in a trend that is sweeping the women's game.
As has been the case in men's basketball for three decades, it now is almost impossible to win among the women without a big center. In 1972, '73 and '74, 5'11" Theresa Shank led Pennsylvania's Immaculata College to successive national titles by dominating the sport with her height and strength. Now, only two years later, Shank would be considered undersized among a new generation of centers who easily top six feet. Most of the contenders for the national title have such a pivotwoman, but none has the skills to match Harris, who is vastly improved as she enters her junior season.
While rival coaches spent the summer drawing up plans to stop Harris' accurate jumper and powerful inside moves, she was playing for the U.S. team in the world championships and Pan-American Games. "I told Lucy I'd help her with her defensive weaknesses if she promised not to use what she learned against us," says Cal State-Fullerton's Billie Moore, the assistant U.S. coach. Unfortunately for Moore and Delta's other challengers, Lucy is a quick study and was the most improved player on the American squad.
Harris' gentle, unassuming manner has won her as many fans away from the court as her reverse pivot shot has as a player. "If you don't like Lucy it's your own fault," says Delta Captain Wanda Hairston. "She is more than a superior basketball player," says the school president, Dr. Kent Wyatt. "She is a B+ student, a campus leader and goodwill ambassador for our university, the state of Mississippi and the country."
Last month Lucy was elected Delta State's homecoming queen, the first black (the coed campus is 88% white, and Harris is the only black on the basketball team) so honored, and on her return from the Pan-Am Games she was the recipient of another Delta first—her very own pep rally. A large portion of the 3,450 students crowded around the steps of the student union to shout, "L-U-C-Y, L-U-C-Y." After many speeches and an award from the alumni association, Harris shyly took the microphone. Her eyes were brimming with tears, but she smiled broadly as she thanked everyone. Then she retreated to the sidelines, where she shook her head in wonderment and said, "I never dreamed this could all happen. I just came here to play a little basketball and go to school."
Harris also has been honored back in Minter City (pop. 200), where a billboard has been erected proclaiming it the hometown of Mississippi's first woman All-America. Her father is a retired vegetable farmer who never earned much money, and a phone still is a luxury that the Harrises cannot afford. At Amanda Elzy High, Lucy was basketball captain and an All-State selection. That means something in Mississippi, which has one of the two best girls' basketball programs in the country, and it was no surprise that she attracted recruiters from Delta State, 24 miles and many cotton and rice fields down the road.
"Lucy takes coaching better than anyone I know, and her cool temper is amazing," says her coach, Margaret Wade. At times Harris' cool has been severely tested. "They stand on my feet, push me around, stretch my uniform out of shape and sometimes scratch me," she says. But the jersey grabbers have not beaten her since Delta State lost to Georgia's Mercer University in the 1974 AIAW regionals. Last year, with 4'11", 86-pound play-maker Debbie Brock and 15.6-point scorer Cornelia Ward at guards and Forwards Ramona Von Boeckman and Hairston up front alongside Harris, the team beat everybody. Now, with all starters back and a stronger bench, opponents will discover just how unladylike the Lady Statesmen can be.
But more than 600 colleges now play women's basketball and six-foot-plus centers play at many of them, so Delta State will find the competition tougher, too. Washington, D.C.'s Federal City, the only team to take the Lady Statesmen into overtime last season, has seven players returning, including 6'4" Center Sheila (Too Tall) Patterson. Immaculata Coach Cathy Rush claims her current squad, which includes 6'4" frosh Sandy Miller, is the school's best ever, which suggests that the Mighty Macs should play in the NBA.
On the West Coast, Cal State-Fuller-ton again will feature smooth 6'2" Center Nancy Dunkle and UCLA will be led by All-America Ann Meyers. Texas has two powerhouses, Wayland Baptist and Stephen F. Austin. In the Midwest, Kansas State and two Iowa giants, William Penn and Grand View College, will fight it out. Other title contenders will be New York's Queens College, Southern Connecticut and Delta's arch rival, Mississippi College. "We could lose three games but quick right here in Mississippi," says Wade. That is just one more indication of the rapidly intensifying rivalry in women's basketball.