Nancy Lieberman, the best woman college basketball player in the country, was perched on the balcony outside her fourth-floor motel room in Greensboro, N.C., her legs dangling through an iron railing. The semifinal round of the national championship was only 24 hours away, but the 5'10" redhead from Far Rockaway, N.Y. was oblivious to anything at that moment, except the fun of being Nancy Lieberman of Virginia's Old Dominion University.
On the balcony to Lieberman's right a reporter was attempting to conduct an interview with her. On the balcony to her left, Holly Warlick, the University of Tennessee's speedy guard, known to Lieberman as "Hollywood," was serving as straight man. Below, around the pool, assorted players from the AIAW's final four—Old Dominion, Louisiana Tech, Tennessee and UCLA—were her audience. "Hey, Hollywood," Lieberman bellowed. "I've got Casper locked in my room till after the game." Casper, so named "because she's so white," is Denise Curry, UCLA's All-America forward. UCLA, the defending champion, was to be Old Dominion's opponent in the semifinal at the Greensboro Coliseum the next night.
In fact, Curry could have been locked in a room for all the good she was able to do in that game. Old Dominion took control of the boards in the first half, and UCLA could not get its running game going. Then, with a 25-point lead in the second half, the Monarchs fell asleep for a while, but still they were able to hang on for an 87-82 victory.
In the other semifinal, Louisiana Tech, the tournament's dark-horse team—it had started the season ranked 18th and in January was still only 14th—roared past Tennessee 102-84. Tech's 6'5" center, Elinor Griffin, a junior, hit 17 of 21 shots, and the Lady Techsters' overall field-goal percentage was an amazing 71. Tennessee's coach, former Olympian Pat Head, said, "I've never seen a team shoot like that for 40 minutes." The trouble was, no team can shoot like that for 80 minutes, and in order to beat Lieberman and Co., Louisiana Tech would have had to do just that.
The first half of the final game was slow-paced, and both teams seemed stiff. Lieberman's passes were as flashy as ever, but on some of them she seemed to be trying to throw the ball through her teammates, rather than to them. For one, Inge Nissen, Old Dominion's 6'5" center, had trouble holding onto the ball. Tech's Griffin, with 14 points, clearly had the upper hand in the duel of the big centers. At the half Louisiana Tech led 32-27, which was certainly no hint of what, was to come.
Much as she had been on the motel balcony, Lieberman was in full charge in the second half. Running, pointing, scowling, stealing, jumping, passing and chewing her gum with authority, she commanded the Monarch comeback. As Lieberman picked up the pace of play, Nissen took control under the basket, and Griffin was held to only two points in the final half for a total of 16 to Nissen's game-high 22. Lieberman, who had taken only three shots from the field in the first half, hit for 12 points in the second and totaled 20. Still, Louisiana Tech might have been able to change the course of events if it had been able to deal with the pressing defense that Old Dominion began applying. The Techsters acted as if they had never seen a press before, and gradually the unrelenting pressure broke down Tech's poise. Their shooting percentage fell to a dismal 37.1%. Even previously imperturbable freshman Guard Angela Turner wilted. Nevertheless, she was high for Tech with 18 points.
The final was a very physical game as women's basketball goes, and at the bottom of the pile under the basket, usually clutching the ball with both arms, was either the Monarchs' feisty forward, Rhonda (Polack) Rompola, or Lieberman. Appropriately, it was Lieberman who scored the last basket of the game. With the final score 75-65 and the net draped around her neck, she shook hands with Nissen. Nissen then leaned over, stooped and kissed Lieberman on the cheek, and finally they both bowed stiffly and comically from the waist.
UCLA's Billie Moore, who coached Lieberman when she was 18 and the youngest member of the silver-medal-winning team at the Montreal Olympics, once said, "If you picked four people out of a crowd, Nancy Lieberman would make them look good on the basketball court." In spite of such assessments, however, there are many who think that Nissen, a willowy Dane, is the secret of Old Dominion's success this year. It was Nissen, not Lieberman, who was missing with an ankle injury when the Monarchs lost to South Carolina 73-49 in January, their only loss of the season. "Inge worked very hard last summer to be able to dominate the games," says Old Dominion's 24-year-old coach, Marianne Stanley.
Nissen demurs: "Nancy is No. 1 on the team; I've learned how to deal with being No. 2. She deserves the headlines; she can do it all. But one person cannot win a ball game. She has learned that."
Obviously, both Lieberman and Nissen are indispensable, and together they may be unbeatable, which is just what Lieberman had in mind when in the spring of 1976 she literally recruited Nissen. Lieberman was in Europe, trying to decide whether and where to go to college. Thinking she might play abroad for a while, she visited the Clermont University Club in Clermont-Ferrand, France, the best club team in Europe, and there she met the 21-year-old Dane. "I told Inge if she'd promise to come to the U.S. and go to Old Dominion, I'd go there, too," says Lieberman.
After a turbulent freshman year, during which Lieberman averaged 20.9 points a game but managed to alienate much of Tidewater Virginia with her mouth, and after Coach Parsons left ODU, things settled down. Lieberman began to grow up, and the on-court combination of the flashy redhead at forward and the cool Dane at center began to work. "We've always had individual talent, but last year we used it individually," said Lieberman. "Now we're working as a unit."
The battle in the final game between the two big centers, Nissen and Griffin, may not have decided once and for all which is the best, but it did serve to point up the absurdity of the Kodak All-America team that was announced on the day before the final, a team that excluded both. From the top two teams in the country only Lieberman was picked. Sonja Hogg, head coach at Louisiana Tech, had her say at the press conference called to announce the team. "You don't get to the finals of the national championships and not have any All-Americas. I'm not a super-coach. The players make the coach."
Fortunately, both Nissen and Griffin have another chance. So does Lieberman, who must have sent chills down a few backs when she burbled, "And just think. We've got all five starters coming back next year!"
Nancy Lieberman was the playmaker who guided Old Dominion to its first national championship.