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‘They were pioneers’: The oral history of USC women’s 1983 national championship game

Forty years later, Cheryl Miller, Cynthia Cooper and the ‘Women of Troy’ reflect on their title against Louisiana Tech and its impact

The dawn of what was to become women’s college basketball was on display 40 years ago this spring when two-time defending champion Louisiana Tech faced the University of Southern California in the NCAA championship game.

The title game was only the third nationally televised women’s basketball game and only the second time the NCAA held the women’s tournament. From 1972 to 1982, the AIAW held a national tournament for collegiate women.

When USC took the court in the NCAA title game in 1983, it was the first all-Black starting five to win the national title. And they were led by the sport’s biggest star, freshman Cheryl Miller, who had set numerous national high school records, including 105 points in a game. Miller was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995. Her brother Reggie, among the greatest shooters in NBA history, was inducted in 2012.

“I just happened to live across the hall from absolutely, positively, the greatest women’s basketball player ever,” Reggie Miller said in his induction speech. “I rode your shoulders all the way to the Hall of Fame.”

With the addition of Miller, the Lady Trojans captured the public’s imagination long before Michigan, the first team in NCAA history to compete in the championship game with all-freshman starters the Fab Five. They became members of the Hollywood elite as guests on TV shows, and sat courtside at Los Angeles Lakers games. Their appeal was unprecedented. The McGees were featured on the cover of Jet magazine, and Miller even appeared at the 26th Grammy Awards dribbling and dunking on stage as Donna Summer sang “She Works Hard for the Money.” USC’s creativity and swag on and off the court inspired a generation of women.

“They were pioneers,” said Mary Jo Kane, founder and director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “They were some of the first women good enough to make people pay attention to women basketball players. You could make the argument that without [USC’s] contribution, it would have taken longer for women’s college basketball to reach the level it’s on now, and for the WNBA to get started.”

That starting five included Miller, arguably the greatest female player ever, twin forwards Pam and Paula McGee, point guard Rhonda Windham and shooting guard Cynthia Cooper, who became one of the greatest players in WNBA history.

Rome certainly wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the Women of Troy’s championship team. The foundation of USC’s championship pedigree was established in 1980 when head coach Linda Sharp signed the McGees out of Flint, Michigan. Sharp learned about the twins thanks to Lakers rookie Magic Johnson, who met the players at a Michigan high school track meet in his hometown of Lansing. A key piece was added when a tough, loquacious guard out of Compton, California — Cooper — signed with the Trojans.

The trio led USC to the Elite Eight of the 1982 NCAA tournament, where the Lady Trojans fell short in triple overtime to perennial women’s basketball powerhouse Tennessee.

Something was missing. The Trojans found gems the following season when Miller and Windham arrived. 

“Getting Cheryl Miller had a lot to do [with us advancing to the NCAA title],” Sharp said. “We had a lot of pieces going into that season, but signing Cheryl and Rhonda made all of the pieces fit. I had five players that were good in all five positions, plus we had some good depth on the bench. We had great chemistry.” 

The following year, USC began preseason as the No. 1-ranked team. The Women of Troy won their first 13 games, including four 100-plus scoring games. Among those victories, USC defeated Louisiana Tech, snapping the Lady Techsters’ 59-game home winning streak. USC lost only two games that season, one at home in its second meeting with Louisiana Tech.

USC was one of the 36 teams invited to the NCAA tournament. The Lady Trojans breezed through the West Region to advance to the Final Four in Norfolk, Virginia, to face defending champion Louisiana Tech.

Here’s an oral history of the 1983 women’s NCAA championship game.

USC guard Cynthia Cooper (second from left) and Cheryl Miller (third from left) argue with a referee during the NCAA women’s national championship game against Louisiana Tech at the Norfolk Scope arena in Norfolk, Virginia, on April 3, 1983.

Jerry Wachter/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

As anticipated all season, the two best teams in women’s college basketball, No. 1 Louisiana Tech and No. 2 USC, faced each other on a Sunday afternoon game that was broadcast live on CBS before a crowd of 7,800 at the Norfolk Scope arena.

Cooper: We were the new kids on the block. Nobody really expected us to put it together and come out and fight for a championship that soon. Who would’ve expected a young coach in Linda Sharp to be able to coral all of those personalities and get us going in the right direction?

Miller: We were confident going into the Final Four. Not overconfident. We knew we had the muscle. We knew we had the athletes. We knew we had a fairly decent deep bench. But don’t get it twisted; we also knew La Tech were back-to-back champs and they had the more experienced team.

Not only were the Lady Techsters a veteran team, but they were on a roll — only two losses over 102 games — and were led by All-American center Janice Lawrence, guard Jennifer White and guard Kim Mulkey (now LSU’s head basketball coach). That experience led to a controlled pace by Louisiana Tech that produced 17 points from the paint by Lawrence and 5-of-5 from the field by White. The younger Lady Trojans forced shots and tripped over themselves with numerous turnovers.

Cooper: It was the stage. It was the last game with all of the hoopla, with so much importance to the game. That shook us. We’re wide-eyed, emotional, and nervous. And it was a stage that we had never been on before. So, it really affected us. We were off-kilter, and we really weren’t sure how to fix it.

Sharp: A lot of it had to be with us being on TV and being on the road against a team who returned all of their starters. They had some great players. They had Dennis Rodman’s sister [Debra], who rebounded just like he did.

At one point, USC trailed by 13 points. Louisiana Tech led by 11 at the half, held USC to only 11 field goals and caused nine turnovers. It was the biggest deficit USC experienced all season, which produced frustration and confusion as the teams walked off the court to their locker rooms.

Miller: I was trying to find my dad in the stands when we were leaving the court, and I couldn’t find him and that just took my anxiety to a whole different level. If I ever started to get anxious or started to get down, all I had to do was look at him and he’d give me that look like, ‘you’re OK.’ But I couldn’t find him. It was bad enough that I thought we’re going to lose on national TV. No one that season had punched us that badly. I was trying to figure out how cold it really was in Alaska if I had to move because I was that embarrassed.

Sharp: So, at halftime I’m thinking, ‘Oh, Lord, what am I going to say to them?’ I took a long time turning around to talk to them. I put up on the board who had fouls and so forth, and I stood there. They were really grilling each other. I never heard them quiet like that. I finally turned around, looked at them and smiled.

Miller: And I’m like, ‘Gosh, coach has lost it. She snapped. She’s really snapped.’ And she goes, ‘Well, I guess we’re not going to play the perfect game.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s all you can give us?’ But the whole time her voice was so calm. And she started breaking down what we needed to do, and what we’re going to do.

Sharp: Cheryl’s face was priceless. She looked at me like I was half crazy. The smile changed the mood because they never saw me smile much because I was so intense. They needed a different channel. It got their attention.

Sharp also got the team’s attention when she revealed her plan to administer a full-court press — which was even more shocking because it was seldom used during the season, and it was average at best when on display.

Miller: A press? Are you kidding me? Our ‘eighth string’ would run through our press during practice. We were a horrible pressing team. We may have worked on it maybe five times during the year, and now we’re going to go out 11 points down and press the two-time defending champ?

Windham: We’re getting blown out on national television. Coach called for a press, something we never worked on much during practice. That led us to believe that we were done. We were thinking how is this going to work. But we had no choice. We had to make it work.

Pam McGee: I always thought we played best when we pressed and ran. So, when coach said we were going to press, I wondered what took her so long because this is what we do.

Louisiana Tech guard Lori Scott (left) tries to dribble around USC forward Cheryl Miller (right) during the NCAA women’s national championship game on April 3, 1983, in Norfolk, Virginia.

G.F. Bryant/AP Photo

USC’s second-half press was effective immediately. The pressure stifled Louisiana Tech’s offense, producing turnovers and open shots for Cooper and Miller. The Lady Trojans took a two-point lead with five minutes left, extended it to five and held on in the thrilling final seconds. With USC leading by two, Mulkey made a steal, dribbled down court and collided with Cooper who ran and slid into position. Mulkey was called for a charge. With six seconds left, Louisiana Tech had one final chance, but a desperation 20-footer was off the mark and USC sealed the 69-67 victory.

Miller: [Cooper] went down and my eyes went right to the official and then he gave the signal for a charge and I started jumping up. I hadn’t jumped that high all season. And I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, Cooper took a charge.’ She never took a charge, not even in practice … I was like, game over, we got this.

Cooper: When the ref blew the whistle, I looked at him because I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t confident that I did it correctly because I’ve never done it before. When they said charge, I was like, ‘amen, hallelujah!’ I felt like I hit the game-winning shot … To this day, Kim [Mulkey] is so funny because she gets so mad. [She’ll scream], ‘It wasn’t a charge,’ while flailing her arms in the air.

Miller finished with 27 points, 9 rebounds, 4 blocks, 4 steals and was named MVP. USC clinched a second title the following year, helping to establish the Women of Troy as one of women’s basketball’s great pioneers.

Sophomore guard Juliette Robinson: We were on the cutting edge of women’s basketball at that time. Just to think if we could have had the type of publicity that’s going on now with these teams. If Cheryl could’ve been seen by the multitude, oh, my gosh, that would’ve been amazing. We didn’t have the attention that these girls have now, but it was an amazing experience.

Windham: This was at the very beginning of women’s basketball. I was the last recruiting class where athletes had to pay for their recruiting trips. Our legacy provided young girls with hope and the opportunity to dream. The year before we won, I watched that game on television and I said to myself, ‘I’m going to play in that game. I want to be in the championship.’ It inspired me. To be a part of the next group of players that would be able to play on television and to inspire the next group of young girls is pretty awesome. And it’s something I’m proud of.

Miller: If anything, it’s the longevity of the memory. And when the documentary [HBO’s Women of Troy] came out, it allowed people to experience and relive what we were able to accomplish. And for my teammates to be able to show their kids and grandkids, and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is what you did? This is what auntie did?’ It’s an amazing feeling.

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.