Maryland and UCLA will tread this week in the final four of the ALAW National basketball tournament, for its first six years not only one of the best-kept secrets in the sports world, but dominated by small schools.
Immaculata (Pa.) won the women's title 1971 through 1973. Delta State, with its All-America Lusia Harris, came along to win the next three seasons, besting Immaculata in the '74 and '75 championship games.
Last year Louisiana State finished second and Tennessee third, the first time a big-time college finished higher than third.
But with the nation's growing interest in the sport and with Title 9, many of the largest schools slowly - and some rapidly - are becoming powerful. Immaculata and Delta State will be idle at home this weekend when the final four play for the national title at UCLA.
With a 25-3 record, including an 86-60 West Region clincher over Stephen F. Austin in Long Beach, Calif., Saturday night, UCLA breezed into the finals to be held at its Pauley pavilion.
So did Maryland, 93-53 over Southern Connecticut, but the Terps qualify as the surprise team in the final four. After their struggles in the Eastern subregional playoffs last week, the inconsistent Terrapins were not given much chance by observers of advancing beyond the tough South Region bracket.
An 80-79 victory over Immaculata in the East guaranteed Maryland a berth in the final 16, but a loss the next night to Montclair State in the subregion final forced the Terps to travel to Delta State to face No. 1-ranked Tennessee in the first round of the South regional.
"We hadn't played well since we defeated Immaculata (113-63) six games ago. Our confidence may have slipped a bit after the Montclair loss," said Maryland team leader Tara Heiss. "Right then we decided we had better do something or our season was going down the drain."
Sixth-ranked Maryland did something. It was smooth in pulling the first upset of the tournament, eliminating the Lady Vols, 75-69.
"After last week, some people may have felt we didn't deserve to go to the nationals," said Terp forward Debbie Jones. "We needed to work on our heads rather than our bodies. We had to prove ourselves."
Southern Connecticut, ranked 18th, pulled off a second upset in whipping eight-ranked Valdosta (Ga) State, 83-75, in the other opening South matchup.
An overwhelming favorite on paper, Maryland was not about to miss its chance now.
The Terps donimated the boards (45-30) Saturday night, shot 58 percent from the floor and played outstanding defense.
The Terps (26-3) will meet second-ranked and Central Region winner Wayland Baptist (33-3) in a semifinal game at 7 p.m. in Los ANgeles (10 p.m. EST).
Fifth-ranked UCLA (25-3) goes against Montclair State, winner of yesterday's East Region final over Queens, 75-60.
With 6-foot-3 Terp center Kris Kirchner, Debbie Stewart and Jones controlling both backboards the Terps slowly began to pull away from jitterly Southern Connecticut midway in the first half.
Accurate perimeter shooting by Betsy Bailey (12 points), several trickey driving layups by Heiss (10) and follow-up baskets by Kirchner and Jones (six points each) ignited Maryland to a 38-28 halftime advantage.
SC center and leading scorer Marnie Dacko pickedup three quick fouls and forward Loretta McDonald twisted an ankle and neither was a factor the final 30 minutes. The two contributed only 10 points.
Their teammates were unable to pick up the scoring and rebounding slack and the Terps put the Owls to bed early in the second half.
SC was no match for the quicker Terps and before Owl Coach Don Perrelli could regroup his fading troops Maryland rushed to a 58-40 lead with 12:17 left.
"Their running game killed us," said Perrilli.
Maryland, which worked out against male intramural teams to prepare for this weekend, was flying high.
In the ensuing 5 1/2 minutes, the Terps blitzed the Owls 25-3 for a commanding 80-43 lead. Stewart, who according to Maryland Coach Chris Weller is "playing exceptionally well now," had eight points in that surge.
"We took the shots we wanted instead of what they gave us," said Weller. "This weekend we played as well as we have all year."
The one area in which the Terps have been vulnerable is turnovers. They averaged a little more than 22 per game, including a season high of 35 against Tennessee
"We are a running team and sometimes the gamble on the break will result in a turnover," said Weller. "I don't worry too much about them, it depends on the type of turnovers."
The third-year coach confesses she doesn't know much about upcoming opponent Wayland Baptist, one of the few remaining small-college powers.
The Flying Queens do have an experience edge over Maryland, having competed in the AIAW nationals five straight years.
"Last week, I would have said experience made a difference. Now I don't think it matters that much," said Weller, who left for Los Angeles yesterday.
SC, a third-place finisher three times and a seven-time final-16 team, will testify to that.