Although the number of quality teams from coast to coast is increasing, one stands out the way UCLA once did in the men's game. Defending champion Old Dominion has so much ability and depth that some coaches rank its starting team No. 1 in the country and its bench No. 2. Led by Player of the Year Nancy Lieberman (page 106) and 6'5" Center Inge Nissen, a Danish import who scored 22 points a game and blocked 154 shots, the Lady Monarchs last season had a 35-1 record and defeated Louisiana Tech 75-65 to win the AIAW championship.
Seven letterwomen, including four starters, are back at Old Dominion, and Coach Marianne Stanley has added a potential superstar in 6'8" Anne Donovan, the nation's tallest and most sought-after high school recruit last season, and Canada's No. 1 player, Chris Critelli, who was redshirted a year ago. Stephen F. Austin and U.S. Olympic Coach Sue Gunter says, " Old Dominion has every weapon you want in an arsenal. They have an awesome inside game, outside shooters, Nancy Lieberman, height, speed, experience, quickness and depth. I run out of adjectives trying to describe them."
On Dec. 14 the Lady Monarchs will face their toughest opponent, the touring U.S.S.R. national team, but Lieberman, for one, isn't awed. "I've played against them four times," she says. "They wear you down, but we can beat them." If the Soviets, with 7'2", 265-pound Uliana Semenova and four other players who are 6'4" and taller, cannot beat the Big Blue Machine, who can? Perhaps no one, but Stanley is concerned that with so much offense—all four Old Dominion starters had double-figure scoring averages last season—the team might rush shots, play street ball or get sloppy. Not likely, but opponents need something to build a dream on.
If the Lady Monarchs self-destruct, three disciplined teams that emphasize defense, Stephen F. Austin, Louisiana Tech and Tennessee, probably will fight for the title. Up front where games are won, Stephen F. has 6'1", 185-pound All-America Rosie Walker, the most mobile and physical forward in the country, 6'3" Vanessa Anderson and 6-foot All-America Barbara Brown. Last season, playing in a unique triple-post offense, Walker shot 65%, best in the nation, and led the Ladyjacks in scoring (26 points per game) and rebounding (12.8), while Brown averaged 19.3 points and Anderson, a tenacious defender, pulled down 395 rebounds. After beating Louisiana Tech 83-82 and Texas 70-59 for the state title, Stephen F. was favored to win the Southwest regional playoff, but was upset by Wayland Baptist, a team the Ladyjacks had beaten three times. "The loss hurt me so bad I thought I'd be sick for 20 years," says Walker, who was held to a season-low 16 points. It turned out that Wayland had finally learned how to defend against Walker and company—let them shoot from outside but shut off their inside game. Well, that may have worked last season, but the odds are it will not this time around. The addition of outside sharpshooters Bonnie Buchanan, an All-America at Tyler ( Texas) Junior College, where she had 24 points and 18 rebounds a game, and Pam Crawford, an extraordinary leaper who was the state high school MVP in Louisiana, will give Stephen F. a more balanced attack. Both were heavily recruited by fierce rival Louisiana Tech, but Crawford says, "I'm all Texan now."
Win or lose, the Ladyjacks, not their male counterparts, the Lumberjacks, are the darlings of Nacogdoches, Texas. Not long ago women's basketball at Stephen F. was a BYOC—Bring Your Own Chair—affair, but last season the Ladyjacks drew 5,000 fans a game (the Lumberjacks' average attendance was 1,800), set a Coliseum single-game attendance record of 8,104, earned $10,000 at the gate and picked up another $10,000 from the local boosters' club. "The team has done more for the university than the university has done for the team," says the president, Dr. William Johnson.
Across the nearby Texas-Louisiana border, which soon may be strung with barbed wire to keep out Gunter and her recruiters, Louisiana Tech is also experiencing the delights of fan adoration. After losing the title to Old Dominion, the Lady Techsters were treated to a police escort from the Monroe airport to the Ruston campus, where they were greeted by a huge billboard: LADY TECHSTERS—NO. 2 IN THE NATION, NO. 1 IN OUR HEARTS. Old grad Terry Bradshaw never had it so good. "The Lady Techsters are more popular than the Mardi Gras," says the school's president, Dr. F. Jay Taylor, who attends scrimmages, travels with the team and often watches a tape of the first half of the championship game, which ended with Tech leading Old Dominion 32-27.
Led by 6'5" All-America Center Elinor (Sweet E) Griffin and the country's two best freshmen, Pam Kelly and Angela Turner, Tech in 1978-79 soared from a preseason ranking of 18 to the No. 2 spot. The season was a series of highlights. In January the Lady Techsters beat UCLA 85-81, handing the Bruins their first home loss in 37 games, dating back to 1975. They then went on to win the state title and the Southwest and Central regional championships. Tech finished with a 34-4 record, sustaining three of the losses by a total of five points. At the championship in Greensboro, N.C., it ran out of gas, possibly because its players were up all night after a burglar broke into Kelly's hotel room. The intruder got five years, a stiff sentence but perhaps deserved considering that Old Dominion held Kelly, Tech's leading scorer, to seven points.
Last season Tech's slogan was "Year of the Challenge"; now it is "Lady Techsters Shooting for the Stars." Unfortunately, one of the stars, Griffin, underwent surgery on her right knee in August and may be out for the season. That could make it a long one for Tech, but Coach Sonja (Rainbow) Hogg, who is known for her colorful ensembles ("Honey, this isn't a vinyl suit, it's leather"), had an excellent recruiting year, landing high school All-Americas from Tennessee, Mississippi and Missouri, as well as 6'5" junior-college transfer Janice Mulford. While Griffin mends, Tech will start three freshmen and two sophomores, but Kelly and Turner play like seniors. They'll make Tech hard to stop.
The other top contender, Tennessee, third in the nation last season, lost its outside shooting game with the graduation of All-America Cindy Brogden and the surprising departure of sophomore Jerilynn Harper, who transferred to Tennessee Tech. However, Coach Pat Head, never one to be out-transferred, landed the biggest catch of the year when Wayland Baptist's two-time All-America, Jill Rankin, decided to close out her career in Knoxville. Rankin, the country's third-leading scorer with 29.4 points a game, will have to adjust to the punishing defense of "Tennessee Terror." as Head is called. Once she does, the Vols should be tougher than ever, since the 6'3" Rankin, 6'5" Cindy (Ace) Noble and 6-foot Debbie Groover give Tennessee a stalwart inside game and Holly ( Hollywood) Warlick is the country's best female playmaking guard.
The Big Four should make it to the AIAW championships at Central Michigan University in March, but they will all be tested before they get there. Texas will again have a quick, scrappy team that could give Stephen F. Austin and Louisiana Tech trouble. Longhorn Coach Jody Conradt has one of the finest backcourts in the country, and Jill Rankin's sister, Debra, a 30-point scorer in high school, will add punch up front.