Looking Back... The First ACC Women's Basketball Tournament 30 Years Ago
March 8, 2008
Bernadette McGlade was an ACC basketball fan growing up in Glouchester, New Jersey in the early 1970s. She especially liked those intense, win-or-go-home ACC Tournament contests. When she became one of the first women to accept a basketball scholarship to the University of North Carolina, McGlade "just took for granted that the ACC had a women's tournament."
McGlade was a bit ahead of her time. The ACC was just getting into women's athletics in the 1970s. Kay Yow took over as head coach at NC State for the 1975-76 season, the same time that Chris Weller started at Maryland. Annie Tribble started at Clemson the following season, Debbie Ryan at Virginia and Debbie Leonard at Duke in 1977-78.
The schools that embraced women's athletics quicker and more completely gained a competitive advantage over those that took more measured steps. Yow credits NC State athletic director and former swimming coach Willis Casey with giving her what she needed to build her program. "Having coached women, maybe he had a different feeling. Willis was a smart man and he saw the future. He didn't fight it, didn't wait to be forced. He stepped up and made it happen. We were able to get some money for scholarships, for recruiting, for assistant coaches. We had a one or two-year jump on some other programs and that was significant."
McGlade agrees. "Some programs were ahead of the curve, others were playing catch-up. The late 1970s were the first years schools were made accountable to Title IX and gave scholarships."
By the 1977-78 academic year, the ACC was ready to dip its toes in the tournament waters for women's sports. A tennis championship was held in the fall. The basketball tournament was second. The University of Virginia offered to host basketball.
Virginia had hosted the Virginia Invitational the previous two seasons, giving Virginia Director of Women's Sports Programs Barbara Kelly valuable experience. McGlade says, "Having the first tournament on campus absolutely was the right decision. Had Barbara and Virginia not stepped up to the plate, it might have been five years before the league was ready."
The seven ACC teams in 1978 played between six and 10 conference games in a decidedly unbalanced schedule. NC State was 9-0, Maryland 5-1, UNC 6-4, and Clemson 5-4. Maryland's only conference loss was a 90-78 setback at NC State. The Wolfpack entered the tournament ranked second nationally, while Maryland was seventh; LSU was ranked number one.
The tournament showed that the league needed to build its fan base. Attendance for the six games totaled a modest 2,750, over half of whom attended the title game. McGlade says, "The lack of fans didn't bother us at all. It was all brand new. We just appreciated the chance to play." (It should be noted that it snowed that week, which certainly didn't help attendance.)
The Tournament also showed a lack of competitive balance. The top four teams were significantly better than the bottom three.
North Carolina routed Wake Forest 79-52. Following the game Wake coach Barbara Warren expressed pleasure that her team was able to advance the ball past mid-court with some regularity. McGlade had 12 points and 18 rebounds, as UNC out-rebounded the smaller Deacons 61-29.
Even worse was Maryland's 103-39 dismantling of one-win Duke in front of 220 fans. In case you think Weller was running up the score, her bench outscored her starters 57-46.
By comparison, Clemson's 73-59 win over Virginia was a barn-burner. Clemson led 38-30 at half and pulled away after intermission, led by Donna Forester's 18 points.
NC State drew a first-round bye. They were matched against arch-rival UNC in the semifinals. The game was close early. The Tar Heels led 27-22 with 7:59 remaining in the first half, when State's trademark 1-3-1 zone trap began to take its toll. "I brought this with me from Elon," recalls Yow. "The players loved to press and play up-tempo and players do a great job with things they love."
State began forcing turnovers and star center Genia Beasley starting scoring inside. The Wolfpack surged to a 45-35 halftime lead. But the big break came in the middle of the second half, an eight-minute period when State went on a decisive 25-0 explosion. Beasley scored 10 of her game-high 27 points during that run. The final was 85-58.
UNC coach Jennifer Alley termed the loss "embarrassing" and attributed it to the zone press, which left her guards "shell-shocked." Beasley added 17 rebounds, while Trudi Lacey scored 20 points for the Pack. McGlade pulled down 13 rebounds but suffered through a 2-17 shooting performance.
Maryland badly wanted a rematch with State and handled Virginia in the other semifinal with as much ease as State handled UNC. Maryland opened up a 45-33 lead at the half and controlled the second half, cruising to a 98-76 win. Center Kris Kirchner dominated inside with 22 points and 17 rebounds, while Tara Heiss had 16 points and 11 assists. Debbie Jones scored 18 points off the bench, while Jane Zivalich made 8 of 10 field goals for her 16 points. Forester led Clemson with 19 points, one more than Bobbie Mims. Following the game, Tribble observed that "Maryland has the most talented team out here. We played a very disciplined game for the first 15 minutes but then got into a running game."
Teams did not want to get into a running game with Maryland. The Terps averaged almost 90 points per game in 1978. The key was Heiss, a senior point guard, who Weller calls "probably the best point guard to ever play in the women's game. She had a passion for the game, a feel for the game that brought everybody to a higher level. She played like a guy. Our players couldn't even catch her passes at the beginning. But they learned."
Heiss came to Maryland as a multi-sport athlete, also gifted in volleyball and fast-pitch softball. Weller asked her to specialize in basketball. Heiss says, "Basketball was always my favorite sport. It wasn't that tough a decision."
Heiss was a prototype point guard, smart and skilled, with more than a dollop of crowd-pleasing pizzazz, a commodity badly needed by the nascent women's college game.
The first State-Maryland contest that season had taken place at State's Reynolds Coliseum in front of 6,000 fans, a huge crowd for those days. Weller says it was all a bit too much for her team. "That game had a different feel. A big crowd, the band, everything. There was more pressure. We did not play or coach to our level because of the circumstances."
Heiss adds, "We always had trouble playing down there. It could be intimidating."
Weller wanted to dispel any bad vibes left over from this game. She instructed her reserves to stand up and yell as loudly as they could at the beginning of the game. Heiss laughs and says, "Coach was always into psychological stuff." But it sent a message that the demons had been exorcised.
The 1978 title game was the first of four consecutive tournament-title matches between two programs that had enormous respect for each other. Yow says "Maryland had all the pieces, inside players, wings who could shoot, great athleticism, and the best point guard in the country." Heiss notes, "State always matched up well with us. Genia was tough for anyone to match up with inside and they had very talented guards. We brought out the best in each other."
Both teams loved to run and press, so it was a case of strength meeting strength. Heiss exploded out of the blocks, scoring 8 points early to key Maryland to a 12-6 lead. Beasley and Ginger Rouse led a rally that put State up 24-18. Debbie Stewart hit a lay-up with 7:24 left in the first half that broke a seven-minute drought for the Terps.
The teams traded baskets until the final seconds, when Maryland made a late push. State had the ball with 35 seconds left, trailing 40-38. Yow instructed her team to hold for the final shot, but the instructions weren't followed. State missed, Maryland scored and then scored again at the buzzer after stealing the in-bounds pass. Suddenly, it was 44-38.
It was only four points but it knocked State back. Led by Heiss, Maryland pulled out to a 15-point lead early in the second half. State fought back and made it 82-76 with 2:06 left. Betsy Bailey stopped the run with a 15-footer for the Terps and Heiss finished with five free throws. Maryland won 89-82.
Following the game, Yow said that State "got a lot confused" at the end of the first half. "That was a very crucial point in the game."
But Yow agreed that tournament MVP Heiss was even more crucial. The Maryland star ended the title game with 30 points, 6 assists, and 4 rebounds. She made 11 of 20 field goals and hit 8-of-12 from the line. Heiss, who still lives in the D.C. area and works for Federal Express, says, "I usually didn't score that much. My job was to run the offense and get us running. But we needed the points and I saw some things I could exploit. State's guards were bigger but I was quicker, so I was able to get inside off the dribble."
Debbie Stewart had 18 points and 11 rebounds for Maryland, while Bailey added a dozen points, Beasley led the Wolfpack with 24 points and 15 rebounds but, harassed by Maryland's tough interior defenders, made only 11-of-26 from the field. Trudi Lacey scored 16 for State, Ginger Rouse 12.
Weller says, "We learned from that earlier loss to State. What made that team really good is that they assumed responsibility for their destiny."
Emboldened by their ACC Tournament title, Maryland went on a run to the AIAW title game, where they lost to UCLA.
The ACC Tournament continued, grew, and thrived. Yow, now in her 33rd year at State, says, "We took the thing one step at a time. The tournament is an important part of that. The league kept getting coaches who loved coaching, loved the challenges. We weren't sure what it would turn into but we've shared a lot of experiences as the women's game grew. So many people made so many contributions. I treasure the fact that we could compete so hard but remain such close friends off the court."
Bernadette McGlade is Associate Commissioner for women's basketball for the ACC. She has fond memories of the first tournament. "It was a big deal. We were very excited to be going to the post-season. It validated what we were doing. The fact that the ACC, which had such a great reputation in men's basketball, stepped up and started the first women's tournament, made a powerful statement that women's basketball would be important to the ACC. And if it was going to be important to the ACC, it was going to be important. It was an historically significant moment."
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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