When Winthrop beat Tennessee in women’s basketball to take a 2-1 series lead in 1974, it proved to be the last college game Margaret Hutson coached for the Lady Vols.
Fresh off a knee injury that ended her playing career, a 22-year-old student assistant named Patricia Head, then known as “Trish” and later as Pat Summitt, was thrust into the head job when Hutson decided to take a sabbatical. Maybe Tennessee has Winthrop to thank for Summitt taking the Lady Vols basketball program to the apex of the game.
Should it feel obliged, the Tennessee program can thank Winthrop in person on Friday when the two teams meet at Thompson-Boling Arena. Following a 73-55 spanking by Furman at the Winthrop Coliseum on Monday night, facing the No. 4-ranked Lady Vols, now coached by Holly Warlick, might not be the best tonic.
Nonsense, Winthrop coach Kevin Cook might say. The Eagles’ visit to Knoxville, a spiritual home of women’s basketball, will be positive regardless of the outcome of Friday night’s game.
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“It’s a total win-win situation,” he said. “We have nothing to lose and absolutely everything to gain.”
On Thursday, the Winthrop contingent visited the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Eagles assistant coach Matt Huddleston, a Knoxville native, said the Women’s Hall is done right, vital for a sport that often gets glazed over by its more popular male version.
“It’ll be a chance for some of our players to get some of the history of our game,” said Cook. “One thing we don’t do in women’s basketball, that we need to do a better job of, is talk about the history.”
Cook pointed out two players he coached, Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes, recent women’s basketball legends that many younger players haven’t heard of. Winthrop will face Wichita State later in the non-conference schedule, giving Cook a chance to introduce his team to close friend and Wichita native Lynette Woodard. Few of the Eagles probably know who she is, or that she was a four-time All-American, the first female Harlem Globetrotter, and led the NCAA in scoring, rebounding and assists – each in different seasons.
“This is some of the history I want them to soak up when they go down,” said Cook. “Too often, today’s athlete feels entitled, and they’ve got to know the history of the game, the people that came before them, not just here at Winthrop, but nationwide.”
Of course, there is a game to play. Tennessee has won its first two games by an average of 48.5 points, and presents a daunting challenge, especially on its hallowed home court.
“I’m gonna remind them we lead the all-time series 2-1,” said Cook, smiling.
The Eagles won the two schools’ first meeting during the 1970-71 season. In 1973-74, Winthrop split a pair of games with Tennessee, a program that later accrued eight NCAA championships and 22 Final Four appearances. Several of those Final Fours came in what was called the AIAW, the predecessor to NCAA women’s sports. Winthrop’s second win against the Lady Vols that year knocked them out of the AIAW tournament.
The chances of that happening Friday are slim. More important in the long run for Winthrop is the experience.
“I think our players are excited,” said Cook. “I hope they play with enthusiasm, energy and a lot of effort. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”