By the time Duke got serious about women’s basketball, they were already running behind. They wouldn’t catch up for almost two decades. But once they caught up, Duke became a formidable presence, not just in the ACC, but on the national level.
Emma Jean Howard was Duke’s first coach. She was also the volleyball coach. She got virtually no support and went a combined 2-26 in 1976 and 1977. The latter year was the same year Kay Yow coached NC State to a 21-3 record. Under Chris Weller, Maryland went 27-4 in 1978 and finished second in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women finals. Virginia hired Debbie Ryan for the 1977-’78 season and she became a dominant force in a few years.
Ryan replaced Dan Bonner, former Virginia men’s player and later announcer.
Bonner went 44-40 in three seasons.
Back to Duke. Debbie Leonard was hired to become the school’s first full-time women’s basketball coach. She had been an assistant at UNC-Greensboro for one season and she had a daunting task.
Her first game was against UNC-G. Duke lost 82-57. Duke went 1-19 in 1978. State beat Duke 125-43 and 86-36 that season, Maryland beat Duke 103-39.
Gradually, methodically, Leonard started closing the gap. She had some great individual talents. Forward Chris Moreland averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds over her four-year-career. Center Sue Harnett averaged almost 20 points per game several seasons. Current Miami coach Katie Meier had a triple-double against Manhattan in the 1987 NCAA Tournament, Duke’s first NCAA Tournament game.
But 1987 was the only time Duke made the NCAAs during Leonard’s 15 seasons at Duke and that Manhattan game was her only NCAA win. She was 69-119 in ACC play, with only one ACC winning season, 9-5 in 1986. Duke went 57-56 over her last four seasons.
The program had plateaued. Leonard resigned and was replaced by Gail Goestenkors.
Goestenkors was 29 years old and was an assistant at Purdue, where she had earned a reputation as a spectacular recruiter.
Still, it was a huge gamble and there was no guarantee it would pay off.
Recruiting did indeed pick up. But her first two Duke teams went 12-15 and 16-11, 10-22 in the ACC, two first-round losses in the ACC Tournament.
She needed a signature win.
Enter North Carolina. Under Sylvia Hatchell, the Tar Heels had joined the ACC elite. In 1994 she accomplished something that eluded Ryan, Yow and Weller; she won an NCAA title when Charlotte Smith buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give North Carolina a 60-59 win over three-time national champions Louisiana Tech.
Smith, Stephanie Lawrence and eventual Olympic champion turned disgraced Olympic champion Marion Jones returned for 1995. The Tar Heels were 18-0 and ranked third when they visited Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 25. They were riding a 32-game winning streak.
Duke was 14-2 and ranked 21st. They had put together an 11-game winning streak earlier in the season. But their only game against a ranked team was at Virginia and Duke was beaten decisively, 78-62.
Duke’s best player was 6-3 junior Ali Day, a Leonard recruit, as was Carey Kauffman, a senior forward. Her father Bob had been an NBA all-star. She had never beaten North Carolina. Neither had Day, junior guard Jennifer Scanlon, sophomore forward forward Ty Hall or sophomore guard Kira Orr, Goestenkors’ first great recruit. In fact, Duke had lost six straight to the Tar Heels and was 9-28 all time against UNC, not close enough to even call it a rivalry.
It became a rivalry that night.
Duke started slowly, missing shots and turning the ball over; Orr would end the game with seven turnovers. Carolina had their biggest lead at 32-25, with 2:20 left in the first half.
“We were real tight early on,” Goestenkors said immediately after the game. “The longer we stayed with them, the more we felt that if we just played our game, we were going to come out ahead.”
Duke held on. Scanlon beat the buzzer with a jumper to make It 36-33 Tar Heels at intermission.
Hall picked up her third foul earlier in the second half and took a seat. Duke’s unsung hero was Zeki Blanding, who gave Duke a tough, physical presence off the bench while Hall sat; she hadn’t even played in the first half.
It stayed close. Duke had a hard time with Jones, who after all, was the fastest woman in the world and seemed to be able to get to the rim at will.
On the other hand, Duke held Smith to seven points; she averaged just under 20 points per game that season.
A Jones layup gave Carolina a 72-68 lead with 1:28 left. Orr answered with a reverse layup.
The final minute was frantic. Carolina missed three shots on a possession that ended when Hall grabbed a rebound and was fouled.
Hall missed the first end of the bonus.
Lane violation, Tar Heels.
Hall tried again and missed again. Kauffman grabbed the rebound but missed the follow shot. Hall grabbed the rebound and tied the game with a short jumper.
Thirty-five seconds left.
This time Duke stopped Jones. Orr stayed in front of Jones, forcing her to take a 3-pointer.
Scanlon grabbed the rebound for Duke, with eight seconds left.
Duke moved the ball into the front court and called timeout with three seconds left. Scanlon in-bounded to Day, who put up a 10-footer from the side.
It bounced and bounced and bounced again, three times, before settling into the net.
“I didn’t even have a really good feel for the ball,” Day said following the game. “I said a little prayer and it bounced around and then went in. It was destiny for us to win. It’s something you dream about—hitting the last shot to beat Carolina at home.”
Day wasn’t even the primary target. Goestenkors drew up a play for Hall but she was covered.
Day led a balanced Duke attack with 16 points and six rebounds, while Orr added seven assists.
Goestenkors praised the crowd of 5,000.
“This is what women’s basketball should be. The attendance - the fans were into it, the band was into it. You saw some of the best athletes in the country giving everything they had to give.”
Duke finished the 1995 season 10-6 in the ACC, Goestenkors’ best season to that point and a building block for better to come. Duke stunned sixth-ranked Virginia 83-82 in the ACC Tournament semifinals and made it to the title game for the first time. North Carolina got their revenge, 95-70.
Duke defeated Oklahoma State 76-64 in their NCAA-opener before falling to Alabama 121-120 in a four-overtime epic. The final record was 22-9, a school record for wins.
But not for long. Goestenkors got Duke to the 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2006 Final Fours, losing to Maryland in overtime in the 2006 title game. She won five straight ACC Tournament championships (2000-2004), eight regular season titles, had two consensus national players of the year and seven AP All-Americans before leaving for Texas.
A great career, glimpsed early on on the night of January 25, 1995.