National Championship moments: 1986 Women's Basketball
As the final seconds of the 1986 NCAA Championship game ticked away, University of Texas head coach Jody Conradt turned away from the action on the floor for the first time. Not to hide her disappointment -- her team had disappointed none of the Longhorns faithful this day -- but to find All-America guard Kamie Ethridge, the "quarterback" of the finest team in Texas women's basketball history. Ethridge was also one of the six seniors who had been through the adversity, the injured knees, and the heart-breaking defeats of the previous three years. Conradt wanted to share this moment with her "extension" on the floor, with the player who so expertly understood and executed her coaching philosophy. They embraced as time ran out, and television captured the picture for the nation. The video expertly framed the moment, but it could not quite convey the range of emotions at that instant felt by the championship team -- relief, exhilaration, vindication, even disbelief that it had actually happened after all.
They had won the championship like no other woman's team in NCAA history, having survived an entire season without a loss. This team was perfection -- 34-0.
"The first thought was perfection. Immediately after the USC game, it just hit me that we had accomplished something no other team had," Conradt said after the championship. "There will be a champion crowned every year, but the undefeated championships will form an elite group."
The Longhorns had been preseason favorites in many of the rankings, the pollsters seeming to disregard what surely was one of the toughest schedules in the country. Or did that small sampling of coaches already know what the rest of the country would soon find out -- top to bottom, Texas possessed the most talent in the country and maybe the single most talented team in the history of major women's college basketball?
Make no mistake; this was a team -- equipped with 13 players, six of the seniors, with a single goal, a single ambition -- to win the national title. It had proved to be an exclusive goal before, like the previous two years when Texas finished the season ranked No. 1 in the nation, but could not advance to the Final Four.
The season opener at Ohio State would prove to be closest encounter of the season. The tentative Longhorns were out rebounded and eked out a 76-74 victory over the Buckeyes. They looked tense and weren't "having fun out there" as Conradt commented after the game. Conradt found out much sooner than she expected what kind of pressure her troops felt. The rest of the season, Conradt stressed the importance of having fun on the court. When they weren't having fun, when the pressure began to get to them, they struggled.
They struggled in the final game of the Midwest Regional in the Frank Erwin Center against Ole Miss. Perhaps it was the pressure of getting to the Final Four that slowed down the potent Texas offense or perhaps it was the Rebels' Jennifer Gillom roaming the middle and scoring 25 points. They struggled, but didn't collapse. Texas countered with Beverly Williams' career-high 20 points and 12 from Fran Harris and road the cheers of 10, 064 Erwin Center faithful to its first NCAA Final Four berth.
Ole Miss had given Texas a tough time earlier in the year at the Orange Bowl-Burger King Invitational in Coral Gables, Florida. There Texas trailed the rebels 22-10 with two minutes left in the first half. After a time-out, Conradt replaced Annette Smith with Freshman Clarissa Davis, who scored the next seven points, and Texas went on to win 57-46. "What can you do?" asked Rebel coach van Chancellor. "I hold their All-America center down and the girl who subs for her comes in and scores 17 points."
It was that way all year for the Horns. On the season, Texas' bench was responsible for the 42 of the teams' 83.9 points a game. In the championship game against USC, the bench outscored the first five, 58-39. It was obvious early, that every one this could -- and would -- play. With Andrea Lloyd and Annette Smith -- both starters -- on the bench resting sore knees, Texas defeated Miami in laugher, 112-43. "Near perfect" was the way Miami head coach Lin Dunn described Texas' performance that night.
Perfection was what Texas strived for, and after 27 regular season games, three in the Southwest Conference Post-Season Classic and three at the NCAA Tournament, perfection lay two pressure-packed games away.
Granted, Texas actually seemed less pressured after advancing to the Final Four -- having finally surpassed a Regional. Besides, there was a certain familiarity with the three other Regional victors.
Tennessee and USC -- the two Final Four teams pitted in the other semifinal -- had both been thwarted earlier by Texas. After the lackluster, early-season performance at Ohio State, Texas had traveled to Knoxville to take on Tennessee. Harris led the squad to a 74-52 win with her 16 points. Ten days later, Texas faced USC in Austin for the McDonald's Challenge game, where 11,470 fans saw Smith pour in 22 points to become the leading scorer in UT basketball history. It was an emotional game for the Horns, who had watched Smith return from 19 months of rehabilitation on her knee to break the school record and in front of the largest crowd in UT women's history. Texas' 94-78 win that day moved USC coach Linda Sharpe to say "I sure didn't see any weakness out there."
But before Texas played either Tennessee or USC for the championship, they had to defeat a nemesis from the year before -- Western Kentucky. Conradt discounted revenge as a motivating factor in the semifinals. "The fact that we have a chance to win a national title should be enough incentive," she said. And it proved to be so. The Longhorns rocked the Hilltoppers with a 90-65 win, and Andrea Lloyd, Cara Priddy, and Smith handled All-America center Lillie Mason and sharp shooting guard Clemette Haskins with ease. Offensively, Davis came off the bench to lead Texas with 32 points and 18 rebounds, while Harris added 20 more points to seal the victory.
Davis' ability to explode off the bench was a pattern set early in the year -- but accelerated during the NCAA playoffs. Against Missouri in the tournament opener, she scored 21 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a 108-67 win, followed by her 18 points and nine rebounds against Midwest Regional opponent Oklahoma. She wasn't alone. Priddy had played solid, if non-descript, reserve role during the regular season, but the senior vowed to go out in style. During the Final Four, she did whatever was asked. Against Western Kentucky, the call came for defense, and she helped frustrate Mason all night, until the Hilltoppers' All-American eventually fouled out. In the championship game, with USC leaving Priddy free in the middle, she roamed for 15 points.
During the hoopla surrounding the Final Four, much was made of the finals being USC's Cheryl Miller's last game. In the Texas locker room, Priddy stressed to her teammates that this was her last game as well. "I'm a senior and want to go out a winner." Five other seniors' voices joined. In a typical display of Texas teamwork, five Longhorns scored in double figures to pace a 97-81 victory. Miller was held to 16 points on two-for-11 shooting from the field before fouling out. It was as awesome a defensive effort as any given by Texas all year. Davis scored 24 points and grabbed 14 boards in the final and earned near-unanimous support for tournament MVP. Harris tallied 14 points against the Women of Troy and joined Davis on the all-tournament team. Ethridge's steady control of the offense and her 20 assists in the Final Four, a tournament record, impressed the CBS announcing crew and earned her Chevrolet Player of the Game honors.
A crowd of 3,300 greeted the Texas team and National Coach of the Year award winner Conradt at the Erwin Center that night after a limo ride from the airport. Former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan gave the welcome home speech.
"You have shown all of America something very special," she said to the champions. "You have shown us what a TEAM is."
The 1985-86 version of the Longhorns was definitely a team -- whether it be a team of destiny or simply a great team with superb talent or both. This team played like a team on a mission -- doing whatever had to be done to get the victory. Like Ethridge coming in against Texas Tech on two sore ankles to provide the spark the Horns needed to come back for the victory. Sometimes they were simply a talented team that blew away the opposition when everything clicked. Like when they defeated highly ranked Northeast Louisiana and its two towering posts Lisa Ingram and Chana Perry twice within a month.
Perhaps they were a team of destiny. Perhaps Fortune decided she had bypassed the Longhorns or inflicted injury on them once too often. Perhaps luck finally smiled on them and carried this talented TEAM to their just deserves. Whatever the circumstances, this version of the Longhorns will be fondly remembered and recalled. For this was the year they were favorites to win it all -- and accomplished that dream.