Celebrating perfection: 1986 Texas Women's Basketball
Jan. 27, 2011
Natalie England, TexasSports.com
In 1986, Texas Women's Basketball made history. The Longhorns defeated Southern California in the national championship game, finishing the season at 34-0 to become the first team in NCAA history to complete a perfect season.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of that historic season. On Sunday, Jan. 30, members of the championship team will be honored during UT's game against Colorado at 2 p.m.
TexasSports.com reflects on the personalities and performances that shaped the Longhorns in a periodic series.
THE END AND THE BEGINNING
Perfection was attained because agony was endured.
The Texas Longhorns concluded the 1984-85 regular season ranked first in the nation, and that year's Final Four was to be played out on their home court at the Frank Erwin Center in Austin, Texas. Devastation then interrupted destiny.
Head coach Jody Conradt and her Longhorns met Western Kentucky in the regional semifinals, and with the score tied and one second remaining on the game clock, Lillie Mason caught the in-bounds pass, turned, jumped and released. As the ball fell through the net, hearts certainly dropped as well.
Western Kentucky, 92-90. Game over. Season finished.
The Longhorns retreated to a sad and silent locker room, where their championship chase was truly initiated. Heartbreak is never forgotten, and to be sure, the 1985-86 season was underscored by the Longhorns' collective refusal to experience that pain again.
"In their minds, they didn't really lose that game – it was taken away from them," Conradt said. "I think that tells you about the experience they went through."
Their healing vow to each other was simple: Win the national championship.
"We learned that it only takes a second," said All-American forward Andrea Lloyd, a junior on the national championship squad. "So we just took everything that year second by second. We were willing to sacrifice to achieve our goal."
Officially, the pursuit began on Oct. 15, 1985, the first day of practice. The Longhorns were 13-strong; freshman Clarissa Davis was the only newcomer, and six seniors – Kamie Ethridge, Fran Harris, Gay Hemphill, Cara Priddy, Annette Smith and Audrey Smith -- provided the leadership to buoy the team's goals and expectations.
Entering her 10th season as the head coach of the Longhorns, Conradt had firmly established her Texas way. Discipline not only won ballgames, it nurtured student-athletes into young women. She educated them on fast-break fundamentals and also showed them Worcestershire sauce was better on steak than ketchup.
"The skills I learned playing for her have permeated my entire life," said Michele Eglinger, a sophomore center in 1985-86.
Conradt wasn't prone to tirades or verbal dress-downs. She led with a presence and the known fact that she demanded just as much of herself as she did her team. A mere utterance of "line it up," – Conradt's signal to halt practice and run suicides – was enough to shiver spines.
"We knew our whole season would revolve around surviving practice and winning games," Lloyd said. "I'm not sure which was tougher at times. It was hard, yes. But nobody went to Texas not wanting to be challenged."
Indeed, the Longhorns' greatest strength may just have been the challenge they presented to each other. They were highly competitive, kicked each others' tails in practice and then hugged necks when it was over. Accountability, and a steadfast commitment to a common goal, provided their enduring bond.
To this day, Davis jokes that Lloyd stole 24 minutes from her a game. Senior All-American Gay Hemphill, who started 91 of 95 games in her three previous seasons, accepted a reserve role off the bench.
"Here's what's true – our second five could have started for any other team in the country," said Harris, the team's leading scorer. "Coach Conradt mastered the art of ego management. After all, no one escaped her wrath."
The Longhorns outscored their opponents by almost 30 points a game during that historic season. One of their toughest tests, however, was the very first game of the season.
The No. 1 ranking was again theirs, and that target, coupled with the team's intense desire to right the previous season's wrong ending, proved to be restrictive. They narrowly escaped 10th-ranked Ohio State's home gym with a 78-76 victory.
"We have to quit playing last year's game in our heads and play this year with clear consciences," Conradt would later tell her team.
Momentum then started to build. Fourth-ranked Southern California visited the Erwin Center on Dec. 10, 1985, and in the locker room prior to tip off, the Longhorns heard something strange; the fans. When they emerged for warm-ups, the team absorbed a program first -- the lower bowl was completely sold out, and the rowdy atmosphere extended into the upper level.
The tens of thousands in attendance were then treated to Annette Smith Day. In addition to controlling USC's Cheryl Miller, considered the nation's best player, Smith also scored 22 points and became the all-time leading scorer in Texas Basketball history.
The game was paused, the crowd roared and Smith's coaches and teammates honored her with affection. It was a poignant moment, since a devastating knee injury almost two years before threatened to end Smith's playing career.
"She is the main centerpiece of starting a program at Texas," Conradt said of Smith. "She was the first really great player. And her emotional leadership, her mere presence on the floor, gave that team a foundation."
When the Longhorns went on to defeat Old Dominion, the defending national champion, in late January to improve to 15-0, the special make-up of their team was becoming readily apparent. ODU coach Marianne Stanley called UT a "team of destiny."
"They really understood what they had to do, and they were a fun team to watch," recalled Tom Dore, the Longhorns' voice on the radio. "They just carved teams up. You knew what they were going to do, but it couldn't be stopped. Their execution was almost flawless."
Point guard Kamie Ethridge was the engine. Her desire for excellence matched Conradt's, and, fittingly, Ethridge grew into the team's floor leader. She brought the ball up, and her crisp passes initiated the offense.
Embodying the UT ethos of "seen, but not heard," Ethridge was internally famous for taking charges, but she still managed her wow moments. The Longhorns' victory against Oklahoma in the 1986 Mideast Regional semifinal is now simply defined by "The Pass."
Running a three-on-two fast break, Ethridge dribbled with her right hand and then jumped as she approached her free-throw line. She took the ball in front of her body, around her left shoulder and passed behind her to a streaking Davis, who executed the lay-up.
"Within a team, you have a standard," Ethridge said. "The guard has to take the lead and establish that energy level. We had a lot of good times. We played at a pace nobody else could match, and we prided ourselves on our conditioning."
Behind Ethridge's theatrics, the Longhorns advanced to the regional final, where they would play Ole Miss for their first trip to the Final Four.
"As we got closer to playing for that championship, we started playing not to lose," Conradt said. "The seniors were the most hesitant to take that game and move forward. It actually took a younger player [sophomore Beverly Williams] to step up. She wasn't feeling the pressure, and she performed monumentally."
Ole Miss led most of the first half, and it took a career outing from Williams (20 points and eight rebounds) for the Longhorns to secure a 66-63 win.
"After that, we started to feel like it was destined to happen. Everybody off the bench made some sort of contribution," said Yulonda Wimbish, a sophomore guard who drew quality minutes with solid play on both ends of the court. "But nobody dropped anything in our laps. We had to work to make it happen, and we did that because of the love we had for the game and each other."
A rematch with Western Kentucky in the national semifinals turned into a 90-65 runaway UT triumph, which set the stage for a compelling championship showdown between the nation's best team and the Women of Troy, the team with the nation's best player.
Priddy broke any locker room nervous tension with a random, but prophetic, pregame outburst: "What am I going to wear to the White House after we win?"
Harris scored eight of UT's first 10 points, and the Longhorns' depth out-matched USC's talent. UT led 45-35 at halftime, and Davis helped seal the championship by drawing Miller's fourth foul early in the second half.
The Longhorns were the champions, but Davis was the revelation. She came off the bench to become the Final Four MVP, and she scored 56 points and grabbed 32 rebounds in those two games.
"Our confidence was primed," Ethridge said. "We were hungry and played to our potential. That's what you relish the most because it was such a great team run."
Finishing the season 34-0, UT became the first program in NCAA history to go unbeaten. Only two other programs have ever matched the Longhorns' unblemished excellence -- Tennessee and Connecticut -- and perfection had a way of attracting attention.
Conradt showcased female athletes, their speed and athleticism in a fast-breaking, run-and-shoot attack that lifted her players above the rim. The Longhorns' full-out style that was unprecedented and unmatched during its time, and it led to an unprecedented feat.
"I just thought that women could be more athletic than they were being given credit," Conradt said. "It entered my mind that if we showed women playing in a way they hadn't before, we would have a chance to gain visibility."