“Nobody had ever paid any attention to us. Including The Washington Post,” says Dottie McKnight, head coach of the U-Md. women’s basketball team from 1964 to 1976. “But, all of a sudden, reporters were at every practice, there were people who wanted to come to the game, and everyone just kept calling. Oh my goodness.”
“In many respects, it was like any other game,” recalls former Immaculata coach Cathy Rush, who is in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “But when you are in the midst of something, you don’t appreciate the magnitude.”
Before U-Conn or Tennessee, there were the Immaculata Mighty Macs. This all-women Catholic college 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia — with only 525 full-time students as of 1975 — fielded the dominant women’s basketball team of the 1970s, winning three consecutive national titles and playing in five championship games, all with Rush as coach. Rush, now 72, was just 22 when she was hired. “They were obviously desperate,” she says.
Despite its minuscule size, the college had several inherent advantages, including being able to draw from Philadelphia’s many all-girls Catholic high schools, which focused on athletics as well as academics. Rush knew how to recruit their best players. She emphasized Immaculata’s proximity and Catholic environment to the families but played up the competitiveness to the girls. “There were niceties about how women should play the game. But Cathy Rush didn’t really pay attention to that,” Julie Byrne, author of the 2003 book “O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs,” told me. “They were tough, organized and could really shoot. They could hit it from anywhere.”
The team also had the full support of the faculty, which, of course, were mostly nuns. “The sisters were huge basketball fans. In fact, many were former players themselves,” says Byrne. “They would fill up the bleachers in their black-and-white full habit.” And they were loud, enthusiastically hitting empty buckets with wooden dowels, earning them the nickname the Bucket Brigade. “How intimidating was it for a visiting team to come into our gym ... and in walk 15 nuns all in their full habit, sit down in the front row, and just watch you?” says Marianne Stanley (then Crawford), who was Immaculata’s star point guard from 1972 to 1976 and is now head coach of the Indiana Fever.
In December 1974, McKnight got a call from U-Md. athletic director Jim Kehoe. He had just negotiated a new television contract with the Mizlou Television Network for the men’s team, which had recently cemented its status as a national powerhouse. Kehoe “dictated to [the network] that they weren’t going to get the contract unless they agreed to nationally televise one women’s basketball game,” McKnight, now 84, told me from her Bethesda home. Kehoe, who died in 2010, wanted McKnight’s Maryland Terpettes (that is what the team was called at the time) to play the defending champs, the Mighty Macs. “I didn’t have to [agree] to it,” says McKnight, “but, of course, I couldn’t turn it down.” Neither could Rush.
McKnight says the Terpettes were nervous for the game, but it had very little to do with the fact that it would be nationally televised. “I’m not sure history got to them as much as knowing the caliber of team they were playing,” she says.
Truth be told, the game itself — played in front of 4,188 fans at Cole Field House — wasn’t memorable. Immaculata, clearly the better team, pulled away from Maryland early and never got close to relinquishing the lead. The Macs beat the Terpettes, 80-48 — despite, according to an Associated Press story about the game, turning over the ball 29 times, an unusually high number for the defending champs. “If I’m remembering correctly, I played like crap,” says Stanley.
“If I was smarter, I would have kept the game closer,” says Rush, who left Immaculata in 1977. “By halftime, everyone had turned off the game.” According to news accounts, with about two minutes left in the second half, the game was preempted by local programming in most markets.
McKnight acknowledges that nerves and distractions probably got to her team, but she was nonetheless proud. “They played their hearts out. We didn’t win, but nobody expected us to. [Immaculata] had a lot of height, and they were really good.”
Four years later, another women’s college basketball game was nationally televised: the title game between Old Dominion University and Louisiana Tech University. And on the sideline as Old Dominion’s head coach was Marianne Stanley.
At the time, federal law was already changing the women’s game. By 1978, thanks to Title IX — which was enacted in 1972 and prevents federally funded educational institutions from discriminating based on gender — six times as many girls were playing high school sports than had been in 1970, and budgets for many collegiate women’s athletic programs had drastically increased.
But Title IX also ended Immaculata’s dynasty. “An unintended consequence ... was that some of these small schools [like Immaculata] that built the women’s game could not remotely compete in terms of the scholarship money that Title IX allowed,” says Byrne. “Immaculata basketball faded pretty quickly.”
Decades later, the impact of that Sunday afternoon blowout goes way beyond a box score. “It was a watershed moment in women’s sports,” says Stanley. “For women to be allowed to play at Cole Field House, an iconic venue,  years ago in a national televised game ... think about that. It was a big deal.”
Matt Blitz is a writer in Washington.