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Nothin' But Net 

Women's ACC Tourney celebrates 25 years

When the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) men's basketball tournament comes to the Charlotte Coliseum March 7-10, it will be a year away from a big anniversary ­ its 50th.

So it's fitting that its female counterpart had the limelight all to itself March 1-4 in Greensboro. For the women, it was their 25th anniversary. The accomplishment is modest by the men's standard, but significant nonetheless. For it's been over those 25 years that women's basketball has emerged from the shadows to the sports spotlight, complete with weekly TV games, a pro league and a sold out NCAA Final Four every year.

The ACC men played their first tournament (1954) in the decade in which most baby boomers were born. The women didn't have their own event until most of those same baby boomers were entering the work world or graduating from college, in 1978.

There wasn't much to that first women's tournament other than the pride of the players and teams. The winner didn't earn a post-season berth, the ACC didn't provide staffing and the fans could be counted in the hundreds not the thousands.

But that's the way college women's basketball was back then ­ something the players and coaches loved and the administrators and fans were slow to warm to. "Hardly anybody came and cheered for us," remembers Aprille Shaffer, who played in that first tournament from North Carolina. "Men were threatened by our having our event, and they're still somewhat threatened today when women play sports they play. But we play for the same reason they do, the love of the game.

"We struggled for everything we got," continues Shaffer, today an insurance agent in Charlotte. "We may have gotten a meal or two back then when we went to a tournament. Today, the players leave with a bag full of stuff from sponsors."

Recalls Jennifer Alley, who coached at North Carolina from late 1977 to mid-1986, "It was a great opportunity to compete, and there definitely was an element of pride. Having 500 or 600 fans there was a big crowd for us."

Alley, now executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators, recalls there were T-shirts as prizes at the first tournament.

Players and coaches from that era tend not to remember the details of those early tournaments other than that either Maryland or NC State won the title the first six years, facing each other in the final on five of those occasions.

"Talent" is the reason former NC State star Trudi Lacey gives for the Terrapins/Wolfpack dominance. "These were two of the premier teams in the country," says Lacey, who played guard or forward and is the only player from any school to make the all-tournament team all four years (1977-1981). "You have to give the administrations of both State and Maryland credit for putting the resources in their programs to enable them to get the best talent."

Lacey thinks most about how things have changed for the better. "Back then, we used to drive vans six hours to Maryland to play a game," she says, "and we would stop to eat fast food. I remember we used to change clothes in Carmichael (a gym for physical education and intramurals on the NC State campus) because there was no locker room for us in Reynolds (Coliseum).

"All those things are funny now and hard to imagine," she adds, "but I'd go through it again to play."

Today an assistant coach with the Charlotte Sting, Lacey doesn't regale players with such stories from the past. "Girl, I don't bring it up much ­ it dates me," she says with a laugh. "I'm trying to still be cool. They don't want to hear those things, like we didn't want to hear that our parents walked five miles to school or had to work in the fields."

What Lacey does share with players today are what she treasures most from her years as a player, the timeless values that basketball offers. "I try to instill the intrinsic value ­ a work ethic, learning to work together toward a common goal, being the best you can every day and how you develop close, life-long friendships by going to battle with people," she says. "Maybe the length of the shorts, transportation to games and what you eat has changed, but these things haven't."

Two years before the women's tournament began, the inspiration behind the event, Barbara Kelly, got approval from the University of Virginia athletic director to host an invitational tournament involving the ACC schools.

Genia Beasley, who was a freshman at NC State in 1977, was the most valuable player the second year of the invitational. But as with other players of that era, she was unaccustomed to the limelight. When a TV reporter asked for an on-air interview, she froze. "Well, you had good game and a lot of rebounds," the reporter began, and all Beasley could say was "Yep."

Now an optometrist in Charlotte, Beasley says the first women's ACC tournament "was just another tournament. We were looking to the playoffs." But by 1980, that had changed. "I remember there being pre-season ACC predictions," she says.

Not until 1982, though, would winning the ACC earn a school a spot in the post-season. That was the first year that the NCAA hosted a women's national tournament, and Maryland reached the Final Four that year. Prior to that, the women advanced to the post-season through a state and regional playoff system sponsored by the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. AIAW hosted its last national tournament in 1982.

The ACC owns the distinction of having the oldest Division I women's tournament in the country, thanks to the foresight and persistence of Kelly. At the recent tournament, the ACC honored Kelly, the original seven head coaches in the league, the current nine head coaches and a "Silver Anniversary Team" of the 23 players who have earned the most valuable player award since the tournament's inception.

Familiar names were among the honorees: Beasley of NC State (1980); Vicky Bullett of Maryland (1989), a former Sting player now with the Washington Mystics; Andrea Stinson of NC State (1990), a current Sting player; Sharon Manning of NC State (1991), a former Sting player and now a Wake Forest University assistant basketball coach; Dawn Staley of Virginia (1992), a current Sting player; Charlotte Smith of North Carolina (1994, 1995), a Sting player; and Tracy Reid (1998), a former Sting player now with the Miami Sol.

When Kelly ­ Virginia's director of women's sports programs from 1973 to 1979 and now the school's assistant athletic director for planning and special projects ­ received approval in 1977 for an ACC women's tournament, the first event was played February 9, 1978 in Charlottesville.

"Gene Corrigan, who was Virginia's athletic director at the time, felt like if the women want to do it, then they can go ahead and do it," says Bernie McGlade, associate commissioner of the ACC and a player at North Carolina in the late 1970s. "The most important thing was that people didn't throw up a roadblock. Corrigan opened the door." *

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