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Forty years later, the first NCAA Final Four reverberates through the sport

Louisiana Tech’s Janice Lawrence shoots over a Cheyney State player in the 1982 national championship game. (George Tiedemann/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

The moment Boe Pearman stepped foot on the court in Norfolk Scope Arena before the start of the 1982 NCAA Women’s Final Four is cemented in her memory. Gleaming wooden bleachers lined the court. Fans filled the gymnasium. Reporters and television cameras jockeyed for space.

When Pearman paused to look around, she felt the electricity in the arena.

“It was a ‘wow’ moment,” says the former Maryland starter. “Wow, this is what coach was talking about.”

To this day, Pearman can still see the crowd and hear people cheering. She also remembers her coach, Chris Weller, emphasizing the significance of the first NCAA Final Four in women’s basketball history in the lead-up to the event.

“There were Final Fours before, and there’ll be Final Fours after, but we were gonna be the very first NCAA Final Four,” Pearman recalls Weller saying. “And what a great opportunity that would be for our team, and program, individually, et cetera, to be in that historical moment for the growth of women’s basketball.”

Before 1982, Division I women’s national basketball tournaments were organized and held by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW). Starting in 1971, and accelerating in conjunction with Title IX in 1972, the AIAW endeavored to establish a foundation for growth, evolution and a pathway to equality for women’s collegiate sports — functioning similarly as the NCAA did for men’s sports.

The AIAW successfully raised the platform and created opportunities for women athletes, but it lagged behind the NCAA in funding and television contracts. That would play a crucial role in 1982 when the NCAA opted to hold its first women’s basketball tournament. Not every school was on board, but when 17 of the top 20 programs — including Louisiana Tech, Tennessee, Old Dominion and Maryland — decided to participate, it signaled the beginning of the end for the AIAW and the start of something bigger.

“It was a huge step,” says Tanya Haave, a sophomore for Tennessee at the time. “You’re there with the men, and all that. The biggest thing was it provided that credibility.”

Haave, now the head coach of the Metropolitan State University at Denver women’s basketball team, didn’t grasp the significance of it back then. She was a young college athlete under the tutelage of legendary coach Pat Summit and was focused on playing basketball.

“We had actually been in a Final Four the year before, and it was with the AIAW,” Haave says. “At the time, I guess I didn’t really know what I didn’t know. So we’d been in a Final Four, but I think you could definitely feel a difference now that the NCAA had taken over, in terms of the resources committed to it and the marketing with it. And it seemed to be a level above.”

In 1981, C. Vivian Stringer attended an event for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association as the head coach of Cheyney State. The topic of participating with the NCAA was brought to the table. Other sports had already combined AIAW and NCAA tournaments and events, including gymnastics, softball and golf.

“We had a meeting, and they were discussing the fact that they believed that the NCAA only wanted to take over women’s sports because of the Title IX issue,” Stringer recalls. “And they were saying that as soon as Title IX came up, that we would not get an opportunity to have our voices heard, and that basically the guys would go ahead and take over and there would be nothing left.”

She spoke up about the lack of bigger venues and advertising at AIAW tournament games. The room went silent. Afterwards, other coaches confided in Stringer that she had made a great point and they were glad she had said something.

“My father taught me a long time ago to speak my mind and don’t be afraid ever to say what I think,” Stringer says.

The upside of joining the NCAA was too enticing to ignore. It offered more funding, transportation coverage, a wider audience, larger venues, better marketing and promotion, and television contracts. The AIAW couldn’t compete, and many women’s basketball programs decided to make the leap.

Thirty-two teams participated in the inaugural NCAA women’s basketball tournament the following year. Louisiana Tech, Tennessee, Cheyney State and Maryland made it to the Final Four, hosted at Old Dominion University. The Lady Techsters were the favorites.

“Because it was the very first NCAA Final Four, everything they did, they tried to make it special for us,” says Pearman. “I remember talking to some of my teammates about it. Like, this is bigger than just going to a Final Four.”

Maryland had never been to any Final Four before, so Pearman and her teammates didn’t know what to expect. All they knew was that they were going up against a very quick and athletic Cheyney State squad.

“We knew going in it was going to be a tough game. We always tried to play Cheyney in the regular season, and we knew how athletic they were gonna be,” Pearman says. “But we thought we could go in and at least give it our best shot and see what could happen.”

The Wolves may have had the edge on the Terrapins from a basketball standpoint, but Maryland was a much bigger school with significantly more funding. Cheyney State, the first historically Black college or university (HBCU), at the time was a small school with few resources. People didn’t even know where the university was located and often asked how to pronounce it, Stringer says.

“We found our way because we were a hard-nosed team. We believed in ourselves very much. I was so proud of them, I can’t even tell you,” she says. “We didn’t have the same equipment, we didn’t even have a trainer. Our trainers were students that were studying to be trainers. We did not have anything. But we believed in ourselves.”

Stringer successfully guided Cheyney State past Maryland, 76-66. In the other semifinal, Tennessee took on Louisiana Tech. Haave, Tennessee’s forward, remembers the game all too well.

“I remember getting our rear ends kicked,” she says with a laugh. “From the post position, I think they were bigger, a little more athletic than we were. And it just seemed like we struggled with that part of the game, struggled scoring. I remember getting beat pretty handedly.”

The Lady Techsters defeated the Lady Vols, 69-46, to advance to the first NCAA women’s championship game. And on March 28, 1982, Cheyney State and Louisiana Tech tipped off in front of 7,000 fans, and even more watching on CBS.

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Louisiana Tech took down Tennessee in one of two NCAA Final Four games in 1982. (George Tiedemann /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

It was exciting for everyone involved, but Stringer had more than basketball on her mind. As she looked out over the crowd, she kept thinking about her infant daughter, Janine, who was in the Philadelphia children’s hospital after contracting spinal meningitis.

“I had some ambivalence going in,” Stringer recalls. “Anytime that I practiced, I would immediately leave and go to the hospital.”

Janine’s health was “touch and go” for a while, Stringer explained, and the emotions of the situation weighed on her as she assumed her spot on Cheyney State’s sideline that day.

“My daughter was left without the ability to walk or talk or do anything. I’m grateful that she’s able to continue to live. They didn’t think she’d be able to live beyond 14 years old,” Stringer says. “As a parent, you can imagine that I’m sitting there in the midst of all this hoopla and thinking, I don’t know what to do. I was there, but I wasn’t there.”

Somehow, Stringer held it together. And even though she knew her team was smaller in size than Lousisana Tech’s, she had them believing in themselves to the fullest extent. They could shoot and they were quick. Those were the qualities that got them to the championship game, and they were the ones the team trusted in now.

The Wolves jumped out to a 22-18 lead early in the first half, keeping pace with the Lady Techsters basket for basket. Then the shots stopped falling, and Cheyney State fell behind. With Kim Mulkey running the point and Janice Lawrence leading the way with 20 points, Louisiana Tech never looked back, winning the first NCAA championship 76-62.

Despite the loss, Stringer felt pride in being part of such a historic moment.

“It’s always the first, and it’s just like anything — the first love that you have,” she says. “[I’m thinking during the game], I can’t believe that I’m here. I’m at the Scope. Wow, we are at the Scope.”

Pearman returned to the Final Four in 1989 as an assistant coach for Maryland and saw how much the event had grown in just six years. Then she watched as Oregon forward Sedona Prince’s video of the weight room at the 2021 NCAA Tournament drew attention to the disparities between the women’s resources and the men’s, and momentum behind the women’s game accelerated in a way that she’d never seen before.

“I think the greatest growth came from COVID to now, because the women finally had the strength to speak up and say, ‘This isn’t OK anymore,’” Pearman says. “We’re tired of being treated less than. I think that has allowed the moment now to be magnified, and people are now doing so much more for this Final Four than has ever been done before.”

Haave sees it, too. That’s why she makes it a point to have regular conversations with her Metropolitan State players about the history of the game. She doesn’t want them to forget the trailblazers like Kay Yow, Jody Conradt, Summit and Stringer, who propelled women’s basketball to where it is today.

“I’m watching Iowa play Creighton and it is a packed house. I mean, it is awesome to see that,” Haave says of Creighton’s second-round upset win in front of a sellout crowd of 14,382 fans at Hawkeye-Carver Arena. “I think we’re at a point now, with the focus on equality and diversity and inclusion these last few years, that we’re at a tipping point.”

The Women’s Final Four has come a long way since 1982, but it’s still not valued as highly as the men’s tournament, culturally and financially. Just this year, driven by public pressure and a report detailing the undervalued business opportunities in women’s basketball, the NCAA finally allowed the use of March Madness for promotion and marketing of the women’s tournament. And based on a letter lawmakers sent NCAA President Mark Emmert earlier this month calling attention to the “inadequate progress” in addressing inequities, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“I don’t know if I’ll see equal footing in my lifetime,” Pearman says bluntly. “We’re closing the gap, but it’s not just arenas or people in the stands. It’s game times, television opportunities throughout the entire year, and through the tournament and conference championships.”

Still, as South Carolina, Stanford, UConn and Louisville get set to compete in the Final Four in Minneapolis this weekend, Pearman know there’s a special reason to celebrate the 2022 tournament. Forty years ago, the trajectory of women’s basketball changed forever, becoming an integral part of women’s sports history and setting it up for the platform it stands on today.

“We all get together on occasion and we still brag about it,” Pearman says. “We’re proud of it.”

Lyndsey D’Arcangelo is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports, covering the WNBA and college basketball. She also contributes to The Athletic and is the co-author of “Hail Mary: The Rise and Fall of the National Women’s Football League.” Follow Lyndsey on Twitter @darcangel21.

Esme Morgan Signs With Washington Spirit

Esme Morgan of England inspects the pitch prior to the UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match between England and France
The England national will join the Spirit in DC on July 15th. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

English defender Esme Morgan has signed with the Washington Spirit, the club announced Thursday. 

Morgan had been with WSL side Manchester City since 2017, with one year remaining on her contract. She’ll now make a move to the NWSL, with City receiving a fee for the move. 

"I wanted to join the Spirit because they have the ambition and tools to be the best team in the NWSL, and trying to achieve that will be a great but enjoyable challenge," Morgan said in a club statement.

"On an individual level too, the opportunity to work under Jonatan [Giráldez], one of the world's best coaches, is really exciting and I look forward to learning from him and pushing myself to become the best player I can be, hopefully helping the team to success."

According to ESPN, Morgan’s lack of playing time under City manager Gareth Taylor played a key role in her decision to leave the league championship runners-up. She’ll join the Spirit in Washington, DC on July 15th, but won’t be able to begin play until August. 

Spirit president Mark Krikorian called Morgan an "exceptional talent" and added that the club is "thrilled" to add her to the roster.

"I think she’s pretty talented," Giraldez told reporters on Friday. "A young player with a great future, but with experience already in a great league and with the national team. She’s been surrounded by great players and also great coaches, so she can give us experience."

Ledecky Goes for 4 at Olympic Swimming Trials

Swimmer katie ledecky swimming at Toyota US Open
Decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky is aiming to make her fourth-straight Olympic squad. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin this weekend, running from June 15th through June 23rd in Indianapolis, with Katie Ledecky eyeing her fourth-straight Summer Games.

While traditionally held in Omaha, Indiana's Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, has been fitted with a 50-meter pool to host the meet that will determine the 2024 Paris Olympics roster.

All eyes will be on seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who will be competing in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle — all events in which she’s been an Olympic champion. 

Rival Ariarne Titmus had her trials last week, breaking the world record in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky’s 200 is intended to qualify her for the Olympic relay. Meanwhile stateside, Katie Grimes stands to be a challenger in the 1500-meter freestyle has already qualified for the Paris Olympics in the 10km open water event.

Other competitors of note include 47-year-old Gabrielle Rose, who stands to become the oldest US Swimming Olympic qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.

Additionally, Kate Douglass — an NCAA and World Champion — is a favorite to make her first Olympic team in the 200-meter IM and 200-meter breaststroke. Simone Manuel, an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, is also looking to make her third-straight Olympics.

Where to watch: The Trials will be streaming all week on Peacock, with later qualifying heats airing live on USA Network and event finals airing in primetime on NBC.

Orlando and Kansas City Shoot for 13 in NWSL Weekend Action

NWSL's T. Chawinga #6 of the Kansas City Current passes the ball during the first half of their game against the Utah Royals FC
The Kansas City Current hopes to extend its NWSL unbeaten streak to 13 with a win over Chicago. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

The 13th match weekend is fast approaching in the NWSL, with two season-long unbeaten streaks on the line.

League-leaders Kansas City and Orlando will attempt to survive the weekend with their unbeaten runs intact, as the Current host Chicago on Friday and the Pride travel to North Carolina for Saturday's match.

But while Kansas City and Orlando have been the gold standard this year, they're still a number of wins away from tying Washington's record for longest unbeaten streak in a single NWSL season. In 2021, the Spirit went 20 games without a loss en route to the club's first NWSL championship.

Both Gotham and Louisville are carrying momentum into their matchup on Saturday. Louisville is unbeaten in three games, and they’re looking to finally leapfrog Chicago and claim sixth place in the league standings. Gotham, on a seven-game unbeaten run, is into fifth place.

Portland and Seattle will face off in the Cascadia Clash this weekend, with Golden Boot contender Sophia Smith absent, as the decorated forward was shown a red card last weekend for time-wasting on the bench.

The Reign could use a win against their long-time rivals, as a difficult start has 13th-place Seattle registering only two wins amid nine losses so far this season.

Elsewhere in the league, 2024 expansion teams Bay FC and Utah meet for the first time this weekend, as both look to rise from the bottom half of the standings. And Washington will ride a four-game winning streak into Saturday's game against a San Diego side that's earned two hard-fought draws in recent weeks.

Watch more: "Sophia Smith is INNOCENT!" on The Late Sub with Claire Watkins

WNBA All-Star Voting Starts on June 13th

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Voting for the 2024 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game opened at 2 PM ET today and runs through June 29th.

All active WNBA players are eligible to make the All-Star Game, set for July 20th in Phoenix. Unlike previous formats that featured two voted-in All-Star squads, this year’s contest pits a single All-Star team against the already-decided Olympic-bound USA Women’s National Team.

Fans can submit a daily ballot nominating up to 10 athletes via WNBA.com or the WNBA App.

Fan-submitted ballots account for 50% of vote, with the other 50% split equally between current WNBA players and members of the media. The top 10 athletes will automatically make the All-Star Game, with league coaches then voting from a pool of the next 36 to complete Team WNBA’s 12-player roster. The final lineup will be announced on July 2nd.

This year's All-Star Game format presents an opportunity for fans to vote for players they might consider Olympic snubs. Indiana rookie Caitlin Clark and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbawole seem like shoo-ins given the discussion surrounding their Olympic omissions, while Connecticut stars Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner are also expected to snag All-Star nods.

And after a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in last night’s 83-75 loss to the Sun, Chicago rookie Angel Reese could also secure a spot.

Regardless, it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for Team USA, as history has tended to favor the underdog. 

The first USA vs. All-Stars matchup took place in 2021, with the league’s squad humbling the Tokyo Olympians 93-85. With 26 points, Ogunbawole was named All-Star Game MVP after barely missing the Olympic cut. Could she and Clark turn the tables on Team USA this year?

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" by Expert Adjacent

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