Skip to main content
Original Issue

On and up with the Mighty Macs

Tiny Immaculata helped bring TV to the fast-growing women's game

The sports world will not long remember that Immaculata College defeated the University of Maryland 80-48 at the Terps' Cole Fieldhouse last week, but it will not soon forget the occasion. For the first time, a women's intercollegiate basketball game was broadcast live by a television network, and another milestone in the rapid growth of women's sports was passed. Mizlou Productions, Inc., which had hoped to telecast the game nationally, only succeeded in showing it in about 70% of the country. No matter. You've still come a long way, Ma.

And you look ready to move even farther, particularly in basketball, the fastest-growing women's team game. The sport now ranks as the most popular among high school girls, and breakthroughs are being made almost every day at the collegiate level. The night before the Maryland game, Immaculata and St. Joseph's played the first women's intercollegiate contest in Philadelphia's Palestra not involving the University of Pennsylvania, which owns the building. On Washington's Birthday, Immaculata and strong Queens (N.Y.) College will meet in Madison Square Garden. Recently a women's professional league, with hot-pink and white basketballs, was founded and in 1976 the women's game will be an Olympic sport for the first time.

Much of the credit for the sudden recognition being accorded women's college basketball belongs to tiny Immaculata, a Catholic school 20 miles west of Philadelphia with an enrollment of slightly more than 500 girls. Without scholarships or a physical education major to attract athletically inclined young women, Immaculata has won three straight national championships. In doing so, the Mighty Macs have received more attention from the media than more likely winners might have. "Right now Immaculata is carrying the image and the future of women's basketball," says Coach Cathy Rush.

The sisters who run the college are understandably proud of their team, but their enthusiasm is tempered by an uneasiness that, like Frankenstein's, their creation might grow into a monster. While other schools are embarking on programs that include athletic scholarships for women players, Immaculata is in no danger of overemphasizing basketball. Sister Marie Antoine, the president of the school, says, "We do not want the image of a sports college."

Immaculata's rise began with Rush's arrival in the fall of 1970. The school did not even have a gym that season, but in Rush's second year it qualified for the first Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) national championship playoffs. To get to the tournament in Normal, Ill., the team had to fly standby, and after winning, it did not have the money to fly back. The following year the players had to sell toothbrushes and beer mugs to raise money to defend their title.

Last year the AIAW for the first time permitted schools that give athletic scholarships to enter the national tournament, a decision that seemed likely to end Immaculata's reign. Undaunted, the Mighty Macs easily defeated Mississippi College 68-53 to win their third straight title. As a reward this season, they finally have regulation leather—instead of rubber—basketballs with which to practice. But that hardly means their title-winning streak is secure. The Mighty Macs' only loss in six games this season came early last week, 78-62, to William Penn College of Iowa, another nonscholarship school that also bowled over Queens during an impressive East Coast tour.

In Immaculata's three championship years, the star was a 5'11" center, Theresa Shank. Now that she has graduated, the Mighty Macs are led by 5'6" Guard Marianne Crawford, who acquired her skills on the playground and can dribble through her legs and pass behind her back. Her style fits in perfectly with Immaculata's run-and-shoot offense and pressing woman-to-woman defense.

In the Palestra the Mighty Macs were perhaps too anxious to make a good impression. They played stiffly, but still won 65-50 over St. Joe's, coached by one Theresa Grentz, nee Shank. Crawford scored 13 points and had a game-high 11 assists. She also led a harassing defense that forced the turnovers Immaculata needed to run off a game-clinching 18-4 streak at the start of the second half. The next afternoon the Mighty Macs forced Maryland into 41 turnovers and freshman Guard Helen Canuso took advantage of the Terrapins' concentration on Crawford to score 15 first-half points. Once again Immaculata broke open the game at the start of the second half, this time with a 15-5 spurt.

It was a glorious weekend for women's basketball, even though Mizlou stopped its telecast at 3 p.m. Eastern time, a few minutes before the end of the contest. The Mighty Macs were particularly happy. They had two wins and a bus with a bathroom for the trip home. They were particularly anxious to get back to Philadelphia, because they were to do a segment of the Mike Douglas Show the next day. Told that the taping would last from 10:30 a.m. to about 3 p.m., Rush brightened. "Maybe they'll even buy us lunch," she suggested.

When you're national champions, the sky's the limit.