Long before these ‘Dogs, the Lady Statesmen blazed trails in basketball

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Former Delta State University women’s basketball coach Margaret Wade

DALLAS – It has been written many times this week that Mississippi State on Friday night becomes the first Mississippi team to play in the NCAA Division I Women’s Final Four.

And that is correct.

But these Lady Bulldogs would not be the first team from Mississippi to win a national women’s college basketball championship at the sport’s highest level. Not by any stretch.

The late Margaret Wade guided the Delta State Lady Statesmen to three consecutive Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national championships in the mid-1970s. The AIAW conducted a national tournament beginning in 1972 that lasted until 1981. The NCAA did not become the governing body of women’s college basketball until 1982.

Indeed, for three years running, Delta State was to women’s basketball what UConn is now: the team everybody else was trying to be.

Melanie Thortis

Rick Cleveland

The story of Delta State’s rapid rise almost reads like a fairy tale. Delta State had not played women’s basketball for 41 years before resuming it in 1973. President Aubrey Lucas, who made that decision, made another good one. He hired Wade, who had been a star player on the last Delta State team in 1932, to be his head coach. Wade had coached successfully at Cleveland High before stepping down in 1959 to teach physical education at Delta State.

Nobody could have known what would happen next.

Delta State University

Coach Margaret Wade and players Debbie Brock and Lucy Harris receive the 1977 AIAW National Championship Trophy in Minneapolis

Wade’s first Delta State team won 16 and lost two, led by freshmen Lucy Harris and Wanda Hairston. Then, Wade added freshmen Debbie Brock, Ramona Von Boeckman and Cornelia Ward to the mix. That began the three-year run that deserves a huge chapter in any book about the history of sports in Mississippi – or of women’s basketball.

The 1974-75 team won 28 games, lost none and captured the national championship. The 1975-76 team won 33 games lost one and repeated as national champions. The 1976-77 team won 32, lost three and three-peated as national champs.

“It was the greatest time of my professional life,” says Langston Rogers, who was the sports information director at Delta State at the time and would go on to the same role at Ole Miss.

“That was such a great basketball team and took me to places, like Madison Square Garden, I had never dreamed of going,” Rogers said. “My gosh, what a team!”

Rogers, officially retired from Ole Miss although he still has an office there, is in Dallas this week working for the NCAA.

Harris, from Minter City, was dominant in the middle, 6 feet, 3 inches tall, strong and athletic. In the national championship game her sophomore year, Harris scored 32 points and pulled down 16 rebounds to help the Lady Statesmen beat powerhouse Immaculata (Pa.) University 90-81.

Brock was the little point guard, the ball handler and distributor. Think Mississippi State’s Morgan William, and she was about the same height. Brock, a coach’s daughter, got the ball where it needed to be, usually to Harris in the paint. But when teams clogged down on Harris, Von Boeckman, Ward and Harrison could all score.

Wade once told Hall of Fame sports writer Lee Baker: “They were a special team. They had a mutual admiration. They were smart, talented and wanted to win. They did not know how to lose. … A mediocre girls team will accept defeat. Those five never would.”

The AIAW then conducted its tournament at a single site. Sixteen teams converged at one place for the national tournament. You had to win four games to win the crown.

The Lady Statesmen won their three titles at Harrisonburg, Pa., Penn State University, and Minneapolis. DSU beat Immaculata for the first two championships and LSU for the third.

They never won 111 straight, as UConn has, but they were the closest thing to it at the time.

Yes, and this June 9-10 in Knoxville, those Lady Statesmen will be honored with the 2017 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame Trailblazer Award for their role in the growth of women’s basketball.

Think about it: From no program at all, to winning three national championships in four years time. If that’s not trailblazing, what is?

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Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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