Forty years later, UNCA women’s basketball players recall their national championship run

TROPHY IN HAND: Today, the popularity of women’s college basketball is booming. But the sport is far from new. And 40 years ago, UNC Asheville boasted a championship team. Pictured, from left, Denise Bowman, Beth Krivda (obscured in the background), Dawn Snyder Funderburk, Tawana Rickman Weicker, Kim Duncan, Trish Wyatt, Carrie Baker Montague, Julie Thompson, Helen Carroll, Sheila Ford Duncan and Teri Hall Davenport (kneeling). Photo courtesy of Sheila Ford Duncan

For many members of the UNC Asheville women’s basketball team, the March 1984 flight to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, marked their first time on an airplane. But for every member of the squad, the trip represented their debut appearance in the 16-team NAIA national tournament.

The initial excitement was short-lived. In the opening round against Central Arkansas, the entire season looked to be in jeopardy. Trailing by eight points, head coach Helen Carroll told her assistant Myra Sims to fetch the team’s return plane tickets from the bag and stack them on the bench.

Sims obliged, and Carroll called a timeout.

The team huddled around her. The group had been playing together for three years, led by point guard Trish Wyatt from Asheville, Kim Duncan from Gastonia and All-American Sheila Ford (now Ford Duncan) from Clarkton. They knew Carroll planned to retire from coaching at the end of the season. A loss that day would end her career. Carroll wasn’t ready just yet. None of them were.

From the huddle, she pointed to the stack.

“Those are your plane tickets,” she said. “If we lose, we are heading straight home from here.”

Nothing more needed to be said. The Bulldogs willed themselves to a 62-60 victory.

The win earned the team a spot in the quarterfinals and the opportunity to play undefeated Southwestern Oklahoma State. UNCA was the underdog, but momentum was building.

Today, the popularity of the women’s game is booming. Longtime viewers of men’s college basketball and new fans alike are tuning in to watch talented and charismatic stars such as Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Juju Watkins. South Carolina’s April 7 victory over Iowa for the national championship earned 18.7 million viewers — a record for women’s basketball.

This newfound attention is encouraging and empowering but also overdue. Women’s college basketball isn’t new, and 40 years ago, Asheville boasted a championship team and a record-setting player of its own.

Endearingly superstitious 

The foundation for UNCA’s 1984 NAIA national championship was laid over the course of the preceding three years. When coach Carroll came to Asheville in 1981 from Wayne State University in Nebraska, she inherited a talented roster that included a sophomore rebounding prodigy in Ford and a freshman midrange specialist in Duncan.

But the team was young. It struggled to win games, lacking a true point guard to transport the ball upcourt and facilitate to post and wing players.

The answer came at Christmas break, when Wyatt transferred home after just a semester at King’s College.

The instillation of the feisty freshman at point guard changed everything. The team’s play improved steadily over the next three seasons, and Carroll could feel that an unusually strong bond was forming within the group. They did everything together, from summer softball teams to road trips.

They were also endearingly superstitious. Before home games, the women would pile into the team’s blue van and drive down Merrimon Avenue to Ike’s restaurant (located where Luella’s Bar-B-Que stands today).

“We all got the same thing to eat,” recalls Duncan. “I got the chicken sub. Then there was a hill right there near the restaurant, and we’d take that van down the hill as fast as we could. … We had to do it because it worked one time, so it worked every time after that.”

And the team needed it to work because, like coach Carroll, the 1983-84 season was to be Ford’s last at UNCA.

“Everything just seemed like we really had it together at that point,” remembers Wyatt. “Sheila [Ford] said, ‘We’re gonna win a national championship this year,’ So we said, ‘OK, Sheila, we got you.’”

‘Ain’t Nobody’

The team was experienced, talented and … still superstitious. When a heavy snowstorm landed on Asheville ahead of a game against Wilmington, Wyatt wore her snow boots to the Justice Center.

“They were ugly and they had fur around the top,” she recalls.

Wyatt took the boots off in the dressing room, changed into her uniform and headed to the floor to warm up. A few minutes later, Duncan followed, wearing Wyatt’s snow boots. They were such a hit that the team kept them on the bench during the game and, following a win that day, continued to bring them out for the remainder of the season.

UNCA lost only five games during the 1983-84 regular season and arrived in Cedar Rapids with belief. At the tournament’s opening banquet, the players swept the door-prize drawings. Among the items was a stuffed animal dog, which Ford saw as a good omen for the Bulldogs’ week ahead.

The next day, while taking the floor for the opener against Central Arkansas, the players were dismayed to discover no warmup music over the PA system. But along with their lucky snow boots and recently acquired stuffed animal, the players brought with them their own warmup tape — the one they listened to before each home game.

Soon, the arena was filled with the sound of Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Ain’t Nobody.”

“We took over whatever we were doing,” remembers Duncan. “It didn’t matter where we were; we made ourselves at home and just went from there.”

UNCA followed its opening-round win over Central Arkansas by defeating top-seeded Southwestern Oklahoma in the quarterfinals by three points. The Bulldogs then sailed to a 17-point win over Dillard in the semifinals.

Only one team remained: University of Portland.

Too much fog

Like Lorenzo Charles’ 1983 dunk for N.C. State and Christian Laettner’s 1992 shot for Duke, UNCA has its own “One Shining Moment.” With both teams playing their fourth game in as many days, neither the Bulldogs nor the University of Portland could gain any separation in regulation.

The championship round went to overtime.

Tied at 70-70 with time ticking down, UNCA worked the ball inside to Ford, who was immediately triple-teamed.

“The defense collapsed on me inside,” Ford recalls. “I tossed it back out. Trishy [Wyatt] was wide open, and she shot it, and she made it.”

There was pizza and a few drinks that night at the hotel, but the real party was waiting back in Asheville — albeit, slightly delayed.

The day after their big win, on a connecting flight from Charlotte to Asheville, the team got word from the captain that a crowd was gathering at the airport. Friends, family and community members made the trip out to greet them.

Everybody on the flight was excited.

Until, just before the plane began its descent, the captain delivered another message: too much fog. They would have to return to Charlotte, spend the night and try again the next day — a Monday, when everyone would be in classes and at work. It was crushing.

“This probably has to be one of the most disappointing things of my basketball career,” Wyatt says when recalling the story.

When the team finally made it back to town, the airport crowd was gone, but there was still plenty of celebrating: a parade through campus, a pep rally, a proclamation by Mayor Larry McDevitt that March 22 was “UNCA Women’s Basketball Day,” and, of course, championship rings.

“We were riding around on top of the van, doing things that you can’t even believe you did,” remembers Wyatt of the parade.

That spring, Ford graduated as the first women’s collegiate player to record 2,000 points and 2,000 rebounds. Wyatt and Duncan returned for another season at UNCA but did not make it back to the national tournament. The 1984 title was the culmination of their basketball lives but just the beginning of adulthood.

All these years later

Four decades later, a team text thread stays active all year. Come tournament time in March, the group’s members take pictures of their championship rings on their fingers and post them in the chat. The women’s game has grown exponentially since UNCA won it all in 1984, and the former Bulldogs are loving every second of the increased coverage and exposure.

“It’s such an amazing game that we play and it is a little different than the men’s game,” says Carroll. “There’s a little more strategy, not quite so much physicality. It’s just such a great game to watch. So, it just thrills me to see that.”

Reunions usually occur when the team is honored by UNCA or when one of its members is inducted into a Hall of Fame.

Carroll, Ford, Wyatt and Duncan have all been recognized by the UNCA Athletics Hall of Fame, and Ford will be inducted into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame on Friday, May 10.

Whenever they get together, the former teammates pick up where they left off. They go out to eat, have a few cocktails and share stories. Their national title didn’t earn them endorsement deals or magazine covers, but it brought them together and the connection remains.

“Any chance we get to come together, we try to take advantage of it,” says Ford. “We’re getting older now, and time is getting short, so we try our best.”


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About Jarrett Van Meter
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