Some other January night, the light rain would have fallen as snow, thinning the crowd at Cameron Indoor Stadium. But in this winter when bulbs bristle forth prematurely and ice forms infrequently on the beaver pond below our house, the weather was no hindrance. Cameron was full, loud and lively, riffled by the excitement peculiar to a major sporting event. In what remains a relative rarity for the women's game, ESPN was on hand to broadcast nationwide the match-up between Tennessee and Duke, sporting 18 wins each and a combined zero losses.
Cameron's upper-level seats and the bleachers behind the visitor's bench were rife with orange-clad visitors. The ballyhooed "Cameron Crazies" turned out in force, armed with their usual printed cheering instructions. (So much for spontaneity.) Many were unaccustomed to watching the women, or the "girls" as the cheat sheet had it. Commenting on students who screamed for a 10-second backcourt violation at an earlier contest, a rule that applies only in the men's game, one veteran observer of women's competition muttered, "You idiots. Come to more than one game."
Folks from Knoxville know their women's basketball. The city is home to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and to a program that, along with Connecticut, has defined the modern women's game. More than 14,000 fans routinely watch Pat Summitt's squads compete at Thompson-Boling Arena, where attendance at men's games exceeded that average only three times last season.
Prior to visiting Durham, the UT women traveled to Nashville and beat in-state rival Vanderbilt, giving Summitt her 900th career victory, more than any major college coach anywhere. The gaudy number handsomely augments six national titles, 16 Final Four berths in 32 seasons, and 21 appearances in the previous 38 meetings between squads ranked first and second in the women's polls.
This time, the Volunteers entered the game as top dogs and left with their tails between their legs, the Blue Devils' victory so decisive it was itself a statement.
"I thought it would go down to the wire," said Duke coach Gail Goestenkors. Instead, the quicker, deeper Devils seized control midway through the first half, then pulled away to a 75-53 win. Fleet point guard Lindsay Harding was particularly impressive, grabbing eight steals, scoring a team-high 15 points, and helping to shut out and demoralize Tennessee's top scorer. Goestenkors tried the usual one-game-in-a-long-season disclaimer, but admitted to general laughter in the pressroom, "Today we were pretty good."
Six days later, the smiles graced other lips in the Cameron pressroom.
Duke put its 20 wins against North Carolina's 19 in another nationally televised match-up of unbeatens, the last pair in the country, and looked comfortably in command with a double-digit lead through three-quarters of the game. But the undeterred Tar Heels--"the most athletic team in the country," according to Goestenkors--came storming back to win, 74-70.
Their leader, effervescent 5-foot-6 playmaker Ivory Latta, set the resolute tone. Wobbly after a mid-court collision with Duke's 6-3, 204-pound Mistie Williams, the 130-pound junior regained her senses during a timeout and ran her team down the stretch with her customary élan, aptly dubbed "Latta Tude" by a sign-wielding Tar Heel fan. North Carolina's leading scorer also hit a crucial lay-up with one second left on the shot clock and 1:01 to go in a one-point game.
The Heels' fourth consecutive victory against the Blue Devils embellished the best start in program history and secured the top spot in the women's polls for the first time ever. "This is nice," North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said of the No.1 ranking, "but I'd like to have it the last game of the season, you know. It happened to me one time before, and there's nothing any sweeter than that."
Hatchell's North Carolina squad won the 1994 National Collegiate Athletic Association championship, one of 704 victories in her career. No other ACC women's basketball team has a national title since the NCAA took over administration of women's sports in 1981-82. During the same span, ACC men won eight NCAA championships.
Through it all, ACC women's coaches insisted their league was the equal of any. Now, as evidenced by Duke's defeat of Tennessee and the high profile of the week's happenings at Cameron, they appear to be correct.
North Carolina, Maryland and Duke, the preseason No.1 pick, have spent the entire season in the top 10, a feat the men have not approached. In fact, while most media attention focuses on the well-worn topic of whether this is or is not a "down" year for the ACC, the women enjoy surpassing prosperity. The last time the league placed three squads in the top 10 in the final women's polls was 1998, the year Goestenkors established Duke as a perennial power.
Duke was late to the table. State schools such as Maryland, North Carolina and N.C. State quickly embraced women's basketball, while the private university for years treated women's sports more as a burden imposed by Title IX, a federal statute mandating equal opportunity in education, than as an integral part of a balanced athletic program.
Women's basketball was undisguisedly snubbed by Tom Butters, former director of athletics, and to a lesser extent by men's coach Mike Krzyzewski and the student body itself. Holly Reid, a Hillsborough resident who played for former coach Debbie Leonard from 1979 through 1981, vividly recalled playing the first game of a doubleheader in front of Cameron bleachers packed with indifferent students, only to see her schoolmates come to life when the women left the court in favor of the men. The example was set at the top. Reid's sister tried to start a women's crew team at Duke and, in an enduring family punch line, was told by Butters "to go row her boat" on a flooded intramural field.
Leonard said Butters, a masterful fundraiser with an autocrat's touch, never attended a women's basketball game in her 15 years as head coach. That did not stop Butters from saying he disliked the "earthy people" the contests attracted. Leonard, currently a women's basketball TV commentator and Durham insurance salesperson, made do with the fewest scholarships and lowest salary and recruiting budget in the ACC, along with no cheerleaders and a fan-generated kazoo band.
Goestenkors--young, ardent and articulate--arrived in 1992-93 and introduced an up-tempo style. The local media scarcely noticed, although the attractive coach surely got the men's attention one year when, after completing a press conference, she stood and declared, "I hope it was as good for you as it was for me."
By 1995 "Coach G" had guided a suddenly well-funded program to spots in the final Associated Press poll and in the NCAA Tournament. Her teams have ranked in the top 10 every year since 1998, unmatched among ACC programs except by Duke's men.
Slowly but inexorably, Duke drew bigger crowds and more coverage, leading ACC women in attendance each season since 2001. The Devils attract many of the nation's top players; the 2006 roster includes women from 10 states, Australia and the District of Columbia. Goestenkors produced the last six ACC players of the year and five All-Americans, including senior Monique Currie. She also captured an unmatched five straight ACC titles from 2000 through 2004, made three Final Four appearances, and finished atop the AP poll in 2004. At one point Duke defeated North Carolina 12 consecutive times.
Thanks to Latta and her Tar Heel teammates, a new balance has been achieved. The neighborhood series now approximates the level of intensity, caliber of play and national stakes that long set apart the Duke-North Carolina men's rivalry. Much will assuredly be at stake when the women meet again at Chapel Hill on Feb. 25 in a season to remember.