If one's interest in college basketball has been confined to the men's side of things, then the combination of schools playing in the semifinals of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women national championships last week at the University of Minnesota may seem curious, if not incredible. In one bracket Immaculata, a 500-student Catholic college located in suburban Philadelphia, took on Louisiana State, which has an enrollment of 24,000. In the other game, Delta State of Cleveland, Miss., with 3,200 students, went up against Tennessee, a university of 26,000. However, in the context of the women's game these pairings were logical and fairly predictable. The matchups also told a lot about how this game has advanced since the first AIAW championships were held five years ago.
Immaculata and Delta were the established powers. Between them they had won all the national titles, Immaculata getting the first three and Delta the last two. They are the best of a handful of small schools that in the early 1970s began to emphasize women's basketball.
Tapping Mississippi's strong high school program, Delta State in 1973 signed up 5'11" Forward Wanda Hairston and 6'3" Center Lucy Harris, who went on to become the first dominant big woman in college basketball, as well as the star of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. The next year the Lady Statesmen added their catalyst, a 4'11" point guard and ball-handling magician named Debbie Brock, who may have the quickest hands of any basketball player in the country, man, woman or child.
This year Harris & Co. sold out their school's 3,750-seat gym for eight of 16 home games, and spectators paid more than $100,000 to watch the Lady Statesmen. They not only turned a profit for the school, but also made a lot more money than either the men's basketball or football teams. And nearly 1,000 of those free-spending fans showed up in Minnesota, shelling out about $150 a head for the trip north. "Yes sir," says Lauri Anne Harper, a 6'1" forward, "down home, sometimes, people ask for autographs."
"No, sir. Little boys. Down home the little boys all want to be Lady Statesmen."
Unlike the NCAA, the AIAW brings its top 16 teams to one site, where they play four championship rounds in a hectic four-day tournament. Last week's field included more big schools than ever before. In addition to LSU and Tennessee, there were seven other teams—Baylor, Kansas State, Michigan State, Minnesota, Missouri, St. Joseph's (Pa.) and Utah—that to one degree or another can claim to be powers in men's competition.
Tennessee and LSU turned out to be the best of them. Tennessee's star is Pat Roberts, a marvelously mobile 6'1" center who played on the U.S. Olympic team and for two other colleges, one in Georgia and one in Kansas, before joining the Lady Vols. LSU's big guns arrived in Baton Rouge by an even more roundabout route. Julie Gross and Maree Bennie, both of whom stand 6'2", come from Australia, where they have been members of that country's national team. This is hardly a new source of talent for a Tiger basketball squad. In 1972-74, the star of LSU's men's varsity was Aussie Eddie Palubinskas, and it was he who persuaded Gross and Bennie to enroll at Louisiana State. With that pair using their considerable international experience to good effect, the Lady Tigers finished with a 23-7 record.
Not surprisingly, the presence of the Aussies caused grumbling at the tournament, where some xenophobes even suggested that LSU change its nickname to the Koala Bears. But indisputably the Tigers' method of recruiting far and wide is the best way to the big time—a lesson that has not been lost on other schools. "I may take my vacation in Japan," says Delta's athletic director, Horace McCool. "I asked Lucy Harris who were the best players she met in the Olympics. She told me two Russians and a Japanese. I don't know how I'd go about getting the Russians, so that leaves Japan."
Not only are women basketball recruiters thinking a lot bigger than they did a few years ago, but their recruits are also playing a lot better. At Minneapolis there was a dazzling assortment of talents, ranging from Brock's deft ball handling to the outside gunning of Tennessee Tech's Kim Grizzle. Shooting an old-fashioned two-handed set in a first-round game that her team eventually lost to Immaculata, Grizzle hit five 30-foot nose-bleeders and ended up with 18 points.