Linda Ziemke remembers all too well her 1972 trip to the final round of the first national basketball tournament held by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.

Ziemke and her West Chester State teammates, members of one of the nation's elite women's basketball teams, had to go hats-in-hand to school officials seeking money for their trip to the tournament at Illinois State.

"We were never sure until the very last minute whether we would get the money or not," said Ziemke, now women's basketball coach at American University.

Cathy Rush, who coached the Immaculata team that won that tournament by beating West Chester, 52-48, remembers telling her players they'd have to pay their own way to the regional playoffs in Towson, Md.

"They let us fly to the finals, but we had to go standby," said Rush, who later coached the U.S. women's basketball team in the Pan American Games and in other world competition. "We had 11 players on the team, but to save money we only took eight to the tournament."

Women's basketball, almost an intramural sport a decade ago, has moved to the forefront of women's athletics since the 1972 enactment of Title IX, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in all federally supported activities. Possibly more than any other team sport, it reflects the unprecedented growth and popularity of women's athletics in that period.

On March 26 and 28, at the 10,253-seat Scope in Norfolk, the final rounds of the women's intercollegiate basketball championship will be played for the first time under the aegis of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Although the AIAW also will sponsor a women's championship tournament this year, the NCAA event has attracted all but a handful of the nation's top-ranked teams. Many believe entry of the NCAA into women's athletic championships can only mean the death of AIAW as an independent organization.

The NCAA women's final, on the afternoon of March 28, will be telecast nationally on CBS. Officials at Old Dominion University--the host school for the tournament--hope for a sellout.

It wouldn't be the first time the Scope has been filled for a women's basketball game. Two years ago against the Russian women's national team, and last year against top-ranked Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion left its home court to play at the Scope. Both games were sellouts.

"It showed us that a $40,000 gate is possible in women's basketball," said Jim Jarrett, director of athletics at Old Dominion, which won national championships in 1979 and 1980. Old Dominion spends $200,000 on its women's basketball program; the program generates $117,000 in revenue.

Since the enactment of Title IX, women's basketball at both the college and high school levels has made impressive gains.

"The level of talent has risen, girls are starting to play at an earlier age and they are more competitive than they have been in the past," says Denise Fiore, women's basketball coach at George Washington University. "People are beginning to recognize that it is an important part of college life . . . to give women an opportunity to win a scholarship."

Rush, who runs a high school scouting service for women's college basketball coaches, says she gets as many as 30 calls a day. "We've got coaches who are logging 30,000 miles a year recruiting now," says Rush.

Bill Sheahan, who began coaching girls basketball at Holy Cross Academy in Kensington in 1975, says enrollment at the girls summer basketball camp that he started that year has grown to more than 500 a summer. He adds that summer basketball leagues for girls have proliferated within the last five years.

"I had coached for a number of years in the CYO and boys club leagues," said Sheahan, now women's basketball coach at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md. "When my daughter got to high school she was on the basketball team, and she reminded me that I had always worked with my sons and now it was her turn. I said, 'You're right.' At first I found it was more of a social thing with the girls as far as working and achieving goals was concerned.

"The boys had been exposed to competition since age 7 or 8, so I decided to do what the boys had been doing for years, and I started a basketball camp for girls. As the girls have started learning more about the fundamentals of the game earlier, the play gets better every year."

Still, the rise of women's basketball has not been painless.

Despite the crowd-drawing capacity of a few women's college teams, most games are sparsely attended and only a handful of women's programs make money. The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game between Maryland and Clemson on Feb. 28, for example, drew only 500 spectators at North Carolina State, as did Maryland's first-round NCAA playoff victory over Stanford Sunday.

On Feb. 1, top-ranked Louisiana Tech, rebounding from its first loss in two years, overwhelmed the fifth-ranked Maryland women, 73-56, before 2,200 fans and 12,000 empty seats at Cole Field House. "We're pretty much used to playing with nobody here to see us, but we would appreciate the support of a crowd," says Maryland senior forward Myra Waters.

The Women's (professional) Basketball League, after three years of struggle playing in mostly empty arenas, collapsed after last year's season ended, although there are efforts under way to organize a new league.

"It folded because of a lack of spectators," says Butch van Breda Kolff, a former NBA and college coach who coached the New Orleans Pride in the women's league. "It was a case of too little, too soon."

Although most high schools now offer varsity girls basketball, the programs vary greatly in caliber of play and in the support and interest they attract.

"You have your top-caliber teams and then you have nothing," says Cheryl Thompson, who coaches girls basketball at Fairfax County's W.T. Woodson High School, ranked No. 1 in the metropolitan area. "It took us six years to build a program at Woodson, but some of the schools are just getting started."

Parents and friends support the girls basketball program at Woodson, Thompson says, but not as many of the students as she would like. By contrast, in Iowa, girls basketball has been a major high school sport for 60 years.

"It's the focal point of our community," says Fred Smith, director of athletics for the schools in Ankeny, a town of about 17,000 just outside Des Moines. "You've got to see it to believe it," says Smith. "People out here really go bananas."

At the college level, the main concern is what impact the NCAA will have.

Just over a year ago the NCAA voted--over the strenuous objections of the AIAW--to institute 29 championship programs for women in 12 sports, including basketball championships for divisions I, II and III, beginning with the current academic year.

Bringing women's athletics under the NCAA banner could only be in the best interests of female athletes, argued NCAA proponents. Competition under NCAA sponsorship, they said, would bring women's athletics greater visibility, acceptance and support.

Inevitably, countered supporters of AIAW--which traditionally backed a more low-key approach to sports than the NCAA--the presence of the NCAA would mean high-powered recruiting, high-stakes championships, dramatically increased costs, a deemphasis of athletes' academic responsibilities and the types of abuses that have characterized some of the men's programs. AIAW supporters felt that NCAA championship contests in women's sports would relegate their own championships to second-class status.

If women's basketball is any indicator, their fears were justified. Of the top 20 teams in the nation last year, 18 have elected to participate in the NCAA tournaments. The prognosis is poor for the survival of the AIAW, the chief governing body and advocate for women's intercollegiate athletics for the last 10 years.

The AIAW has sued the NCAA, contending its sponsorship of women's sports championships are in violation of federal antitrust laws. But unless the suit is successful, the AIAW probably won't last more than a year, according to its president Merrily Dean Baker of Princeton. "We're in a state of limbo," she says.

The lawsuit is scheduled for trial late this spring. Recently, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey directed both organizations to explore the possibility of a merger. Baker says she's encouraged by that development, but merger talks have gone on periodically for six years without success.

At the University of Maryland, Chris Weller, the women's basketball coach, says she would be sorry to see the AIAW fold and would like the two organizations to reach some sort of accommodation.

"When there's a power struggle going, this always seems to be the way it works out," said Weller.

Since national rankings of women's basketball teams were first published five years ago, Weller's team is the only one to have been ranked in the top 20 every week. This year, the Terrapins are in the NCAA regional semifinals; they will play Missouri Friday night at 11 at Stanford.

As a player at Maryland in the mid 1960s, Weller recalls the basketball program received only minimal support from the university. "We wanted to work. We wanted to get better, but we weren't encouraged along those lines," she said.

This year, Maryland will spend $90,000 on its women's basketball program for salaries, equipment, travel, operating budget, fringe benefits and other expenses. Additionally, Weller has 12 full basketball scholarships at her disposal, the same as Lefty Driesell, the men's basketball coach.

But attendance at games averages only 500 to 1,000, and revenues from the women's program this year are projected at less than $5,000. By contrast, Maryland budgets $370,000 for its men's basketball program, which will generate $436,000 in projected income, plus another $450,000 from telecasts of Maryland games.

"We're not comparable to the men's program, but we are comparable to other nonrevenue sports," says Weller, who contends limited media coverage of her team is partly responsible for the lack of spectator interest.

Weller was particularly galled by television arrangements for coverage of the ACC women's basketball final. After being told to plan for timeouts at 16, 12, 8 and 4 minutes to accommodate television coverage, she didn't get the timeouts and then learned the telecast would be delayed until April.

"It might as well be next year," she said. "I get tired of the way they treat women's basketball."

At the professional level, the Women's Basketball League effectively folded last May when representatives of the nine teams remaining in the league declined to pay their monthly league assessments of approximately $1,500, according to Sherwin Fischer of Chicago, who was interim commissioner at the time.

"They were all saying, 'I'll pay if the other guy pays,' " Fisher recalled. "But nobody did pay. I couldn't see keeping the office open and a staff if nobody was going to pay."

During the three years of the league's existence, Fischer said, the number of teams varied between eight and 13 as franchises moved and folded and new ones formed. "The owners didn't have the money to go forward with it, and nobody wanted to support the league. That was the basic problem," said Fischer.

Laurence C. Kozlicki, a Chicago lawyer who was also part owner of the WBL's Nebraska Wranglers, contends the league might have survived with better management.

"In excess of $11 million was expended over the three years the league was in existence," said Kozlicki. "But it could have been spent more wisely. I just don't think that league had the proper marketing techniques.

"They started a little bit early. Being a pioneer is always difficult. Being a pioneer too early is even more difficult."

Nevertheless, Kozlicki says he's convinced there is a market for women's professional basketball.

"Running a women's professional basketball league would cost less than most professional sports. We knew we were going to have low attendance, but we could afford low attendance. Most teams, if they had 3,500 there, they could break even. Salary was running only 25 percent of our budget. You had Nancy Lieberman, who was making $100,000, and Inge Nissen making about $45,000, but the average salary was only about $10,000."

Lieberman was the nation's top woman basketball player when she led Old Dominion to two national championships. She also was a No. 1 draft pick by the Dallas Diamonds. She now says she's convinced women's professional basketball will return.

"We had a lot of really nice owners who were willing to put up money, but they didn't know how to make money," said Lieberman, 23. "They had no structure and they had no goal. For me, it was terrific to make $100,000 playing basketball. But I'd rather make $20,000 for 10 years playing basketball than $100,000 for one year.

"I do think we will be playing next year. That's why I'm staying in shape and working hard," said Lieberman, who has spent the last year running basketball clinics, speaking at banquets and doing some basketball commentary on television.

Bill Haarlow, a retired vice president of Illinois Bell and a former all-America basketball player at the University of Chicago, also thinks there will be a women's league next year. He says he's been approached by a group of businessmen who have asked him to be its commissioner.

Haarlow won't give specifics or say how many teams might be in the league because negotiations are still in process. "We have a number of well-known personalities around the country who have an interest in this," says Haarlow. "Our franchise teams will be located in major markets around the country, and there will be a player draft in mid-July."

League headquarters will be in Chicago, Haarlow said, with a formal announcement in about two months.

Not everyone shares Haarlow's optimism, Rush among them.

"I don't see a future for it at this point," says Rush. "Trying to put teams in Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles, where they already have professional teams, is not going to work. I don't think the teams will draw until the colleges have a large backing and the high schools have a large backing and I don't see that happening next year or the year after.

"The skill level in women's basketball has improved and you have very good individual players. But I don't think some of the teams really put on a good show. They turn the ball over a lot. They don't do the things that would make for an entertaining game.