When she arrived at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion on March 25, 1978, Chris Weller decided she wasn’t going to look up.
The Maryland women’s basketball coach had put her heart and her nerves through quite enough just to get to that court, where the Terrapins were set to face the Bruins for the national championship of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, the predecessor to the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. Not only had Maryland arrived at the title game by pulling off upsets over No. 1 Tennessee and No. 2 Wayland Baptist, the crème de la crème of women’s basketball at the time, but it had literally arrived on a plane.
It was the first time the team had flown to a game, and it was Weller’s first time flying.
Had the coach looked up, she would have seen the 9,351 spectators in Pauley Pavilion, the most to witness a women’s title game at the time. Had she looked around, she would have seen NBC cameras, there to televise a women’s college basketball championship for the first time.
“I kept my head down and tried to concentrate on us, period, end of sentence,” Weller said Sunday. “It was absolutely the biggest game I’ve ever coached in. I can’t even tell you, when it was something big like that. … I don’t think it hit me, the historic event that it was going to become.”
On Monday, No. 3 seed Maryland (29-4) and No. 6 seed UCLA (21-12) will meet in the second round of the NCAA tournament in College Park exactly 41 years after the Bruins beat the Terps, 90-74, in a title game that was heralded at the time as the arrival of women’s basketball on the national stage.
It was the first time two mainstream national powerhouses met in a final, as women’s basketball had been dominated by smaller colleges such as Wayland Baptist of Plainview, Tex.; Immaculata, a small Catholic school in Pennsylvania; and Delta State in Cleveland, Miss. Tennessee was just beginning its ascent.
It was also the first time the AIAW tournament, in which women’s teams competed from 1972 to 1982, had copied the final-four format of the men’s tournament. Before then, the tournament was a four-day extravaganza.
“It was just exciting to finally be at that level and play those teams because before we never had the financial ability or we didn’t have the support of women’s programs in general on the East Coast,” Weller said. “The East Coast was slow in terms of coming into accomplishing the Title IX requirements.
“We had a very talented team, but it was a team that had not had any recognition whatsoever. …We weren’t in line with all those other programs in terms of experience and exposure, but we had good talent. Some of those other programs, they had great histories. But it always comes down to talent, I don’t care what anybody says.”
By the time they met for the title that March, Maryland and UCLA had built a little history of their own.
Both Ann Meyers Drysdale — Ann Meyers in 1978, when she was a four-time all-American who led the Bruins in the title game with 20 points, 10 rebounds, eight steals and nine assists — and UCLA’s all-time leading scorer, Denise Curry, remember the championship primarily as a revenge game.
The Bruins had traveled across the country for games for the first time that year on a winter-break road trip that brought them to both Madison Square Garden and Maryland’s Cole Field House, where they lost to the Terps, 92-88.
“There was really a good amount of recognition around that [January] game because the men’s teams had played a few years earlier, in 1973,” Meyers Drysdale said in a phone interview Sunday. “And people actually knew my name because my brother, Dave, played in that game.
“Maryland had Tara Heiss, and I think Tara went off for 27 points on us or whatever in that game. And coming out in the title game, [UCLA Coach Billie Moore] didn’t tell me until right before we were supposed to go out on the court that I was going to guard Tara.
"So I defended Tara in the first half … and she did nothing in the first half, I will say that. She didn’t have a point — she’ll love that. She’ll probably slap me upside the head for saying that. She was such a driven player; of course, she made adjustments in the second half.”
Curry traveled with the Bruins to College Park this weekend and will be in the stands at Xfinity Center on Monday night along with Weller. (Meyers Drysdale couldn’t make the trip but said she will be cheering from home.) Curry, a freshman in the 1978 title game, didn’t realize in the moment how momentous it was for women’s basketball. In fact, it wasn’t even her only national championship that year — she went on to win another with the UCLA softball team.
“It was a big deal, and there was a great crowd, but did we know we were history-making in the sense that it brought in a new era? No, we didn’t know that,” Curry said, laughing. “It was a great rematch with Maryland and kind of put UCLA women’s basketball on the map. That much we knew.”
The Maryland and UCLA teams competing for a spot in the Sweet 16 on Monday have a little more perspective on that historic game.
“To be able to sustain the consistency of that brand, when you talk about two programs at the highest level, it’s not easy to do,” Maryland Coach Brenda Frese said.
Said UCLA Coach Cori Close: “We talk a lot about respect and represent in our program. Respect the opportunities you’ve been given and represent the people that have come before you, and I think, wow, we’re walking in a trail that other people blazed. It’s really big to be able to remember that we did not come at this alone.”