(BLOOMINGTON) — The women’s basketball team at Indiana University made history this year, even with Monday's loss to Arizona in the NCAA regional final in San Antonio. But, die-hard IU Women’s fans may have been puzzled during the team’s remarkable run through the NCAA tournament, as it has been described as the Hoosiers’ “first trip to the Sweet 16” and now “first trip to the Elite 8.” The Hoosiers’ own home arena said otherwise, and like the history of women’s college basketball, the truth is more complicated.
WE'RE STILL DANCING. 🎉— Indiana Women’s Basketball (@IndianaWBB) March 24, 2021
The Indiana Hoosiers advance to the first SWEET 1️⃣6️⃣ in program history. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/uhXkxzGe7f
The “Sweet 16” and “Elite 8” are now terms inextricably tied to the NCAA men’s and women’s tournament. Like the “Final Four”, the terms are trademarked by the NCAA – meaning that while we can use them in news story copy in this article and on the air, we cannot show the “Elite 8” logo or write the term “Final Four” on our on-screen graphics during newscasts. This is why you are seeing the phrase “First Elite 8 in school history” used for and by the IU Women’s program – in the NCAA era, this is true.
But long before the NCAA realized it could make money off women’s sports, another organization worked to give women a place to compete for the championships that were all going to men’s programs, a place where Indiana University women would lay the groundwork for the program that’s getting national attention this year.
The Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) was founded in 1971, inviting its member schools to compete for titles in multiple sports. It was the year before Title IX – the federal law written by Indiana Senator Birch Bayh that banned discrimination based on sex at any school that received public money. The law was opposed by the NCAA, and it forced schools to offer an equal number of women’s sports and other programs. 1971 was also the year that, for the first time, IU recognized women’s basketball as a varsity sport.
The Hoosiers’ first head coach didn’t even get paid for the job. Bea Gorton was a graduate student, and her coaching the women’s team was incorporated into her graduate assistant position, as she continued studies for her PhD in biomechanics. Gorton, who died in 2020, said her first recruiting trips were walks to billboards on the Bloomington campus, putting up flyers for open tryouts. “The first year, we actually took anybody who came for the tryouts,” Gorton said during a 2014 retrospective produced by the IU Athletics Department.
#OTD 1973, IU women’s basketball team advanced to the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women semifinals, less than a year after Title IX went into effect. AIAW was the premiere women’s athletic org before NCAA hosted tournaments in 1982 https://t.co/g8ji2sEPg2 pic.twitter.com/lxwNF7gYuK— Indiana Historical Bureau (@in_bureau) March 24, 2021
Despite the unconventional recruiting, the first Hoosiers women’s team was unquestionably successful, going 13-1 during a regular season that featured mostly in-state matchups to save travel money, the method of travel at the time being an oversized van. In March 1972, IU was one of 16 teams invited to the first AIAW National Tournament, held at Illinois State University – ironically, just north of Bloomington, Illinois.
After an opening round win over Southern Connecticut State to advance to the quarterfinals – what would later become the “Elite 8," the Hoosiers were eliminated in a tight game with Immaculata University, a Pennsylvania school that was a powerhouse in early women’s college basketball. The final score was 49-46, and Immaculata would go on to win the first recognized national championship in women’s basketball.
Indiana also made the Elite 8 at the 1974 AIAW Tournament, again losing to eventual champion Immaculata – the ‘Mighty Macs’ would win the first three AIAW championships. But, 1973 brought IU its best – thus far – women’s basketball year. The Hoosiers capped a 14-1 regular season with another trip to the AIAW national tournament, this time in New York City.
Another big change in the first post-Title IX season was how the women’s team arrived at the tournament. “The IU Foundation plane flew us to New York, and it was the first time some of the athletes had flown. Those are memories you don’t forget,” Gorton said. The Hoosiers won their first two games to get to their first, and so far only, ‘Final Four.’ There were no days off during the AIAW tournament back then, and the nature of when the games were scheduled meant that IU had to play three games within a 24-hour span.
They lost that third game – the national semifinal - to Queens College of New York 52-40 – on Queens’ home court. “I just remember being exhausted,” said Tara VanDerveer during the 2014 IU retrospective. VanDerveer was one of IU’s star players, and she went on to become the winningest coach in women’s college basketball history, winning two NCAA titles at Stanford. “If nothing else, it helped me as a coach to understand the importance of conditioning and being in great shape.”
Many years later, what is so far the greatest era of IU Women’s basketball finally got recognition from the school. In 2014, Bea Gorton was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame, and a banner for the 1973 AIAW Final Four team was raised at Assembly Hall. While IU's run in this year's NCAA tournament was an incredible feat in a much more competitive women’s basketball world, it’s only possible because of the work five decades ago of many other pioneering ‘Final Four’ Hoosier women.