The race for the women's national title, now held by UCLA, promises to be a wide-open shoot-out, with any one of 10 teams capable of taking the championship. The outcome may well hinge on the answer to this year's big question: Who is going to replace last season's best seniors, Ann Meyers of UCLA, the first four-time women's All-America, and Montclair State's Carol (Blaze) Blazejowski, the nation's leading scorer with a 38.6 average? They led their teams to the final four of the AIAW tournament, and their meeting there, though it occurred in the semifinals, was the title game in all but name.
The players most likely to take their teams to the finals at Greensboro, N.C. would seem to be Old Dominion junior Nancy Lieberman, Tennessee senior Cindy Brogdon and North Carolina State junior Genia Beasley. But upperclassmen have no lock on the starring roles, because they will be pressed by the best and largest contingent of sophomores ever to play the women's game. "Each year the kids coming in are bigger, better, faster and more numerous," says UCLA Coach Billie Moore. "Four or five years ago I would have had difficulty naming five great players. Now there are 12 in the sophomore class alone."
Heading the list is the Bruins' Denise Curry, a 6'1" forward. In her first college game, Curry led the UCLA scorers with 27 points and its rebounders with 15 in an 84-70 victory over San Jose State. Twelve days later she set a school single-game scoring record of 30 points, and by the end of the season she had four more UCLA records, three of which had been held by the redoubtable Meyers: most points in one season (610); best field-goal percentage (62.1%, third highest in the nation); best scoring average (20.3 points); and most rebounds in a game (25). "Denise amazes me," says Moore. "She has a fluid, natural style that makes everything look easy, and she's so consistent that I can't name her best game. Even though she's a forward, her ball handling is so good that she often brings the ball up for us, and she's one of the best pure shooters around. She has a tremendous first step, great mobility and upper-body control."
That is high praise for a 19-year-old, but Moore's coaching rivals agree with her assessment. Stephen F. Austin's Sue Gunter, who coached Curry on the U.S. team that took the silver medal in Bulgaria last summer, says, "Eve never seen a second-year kid do so much so well. She's an outstanding shooter from inside or from 20 feet, and she can handle the ball like a guard. She's just phenomenal."
The soft-spoken phenomenon from Davis, Calif. began absorbing and perfecting the finer points of basketball when she was five years old. Curry's first teachers were her father Les, who is a high school coach, and her older brother Mike, a starting guard for Montana's Rocky Mountain College. Curry attended all her dad's home games, and Mike always encouraged her to play in the pickup games on the family court. By watching and competing against boys, Curry developed the rugged inside moves that now mark her game. Her shooting touch came easier, perhaps because she is a natural—she was Davis High MVP in hoops, volleyball and Softball—but she polished it at summer camps and in one of the best girls' basketball programs in California.
In her three seasons at Davis, Curry averaged 24.9 points and grabbed 14.2 rebounds a game. Her team lost only five of 75 games and won two San Joaquin Section titles, and she was voted California Player of the Year in 1977. She also was the first athlete at Davis—male or female—to have a jersey retired. After more than 30 colleges offered her scholarships, Curry decided on UCLA because of its strong women's program and its high academic standing.
Curry, whose teammates call her Casper because of her pale complexion, may be the best of the sophomores, but she is merely typical of them when it comes to explaining how she became so good. In fact, her words have an ageless quality; these sentiments might have been expressed by 19-year-old men as far back as 30 or 40 years ago. Now those feelings are those of a generation of young women.
"I've wanted to be a basketball player since I can remember," Curry says. "My dad never pushed me, but he was always there if I needed advice. Basketball was always something to look forward to.
"In my sophomore year in high school I was 5'10", and I thought I might have the potential to earn a scholarship. Since then basketball has been my focal point, my life. I played other sports, but my free hours were spent shooting.
"Offensively my game is sound, but I'm weak on defense. In high school you don't learn defense, so I need to work at being aggressive. I'm not interested in records. I'm shooting to make the trip to Moscow in 1980, but first I want to see us get back to the nationals."