Blackburn women won national title 25 years ago
By Tom Emery
CARLINVILLE (March 8, 2018) – The first week of March is the 25th anniversary of one of the hallmark events in the history of Blackburn College athletics – the National Small College Athletic Association championship season of the women’s basketball team.
Blackburn capped off its record-breaking run with a dramatic overtime win at Wilmington, Del. on March 6, 1993 in one of the most memorable seasons of any team in school history.
In retrospect, the national title season was hardly a surprise. The Blackburn women’s basketball program was at its zenith, coming off finishes of third, third, and second at the previous three NSCAA tournaments, respectively. The 1990-91 squad had also captured a share of the first-ever St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular-season women’s basketball title, and started a Blackburn run of SLIAC tournament championships that would last until 1995.
The national title was among the goals set for the 1992-93 season, as head coach Jim Sexton, who had overseen the rise of Blackburn women’s basketball since taking over in 1981, made the objectives clear. Another SLIAC title was expected, as was another conference tournament championship. But topping the list was an NSCAA championship, and those three objectives stayed in the back of everyone’s mind throughout the winter.
And there were plenty of championship-level players to lead the way. Scrappy guard Karen Tuttle was in the last season of a legendary career, while junior Lisa Pliskin ran the offense at the point. In the middle was 6’3 freshman Sara Frankford, who was about to open a career that landed her in the Blackburn Athletics Hall of Fame.
Senior Marsha Campbell brought defensive strength at small forward. In reserve, a long and deep bench featured the likes of junior guard Teena Rhodes and senior forward Lynn Whisenton. Indeed, it was a physically talented, and mentally tough, group from top to bottom, and they knew what it took to win.
After going 3-5 before Christmas in a schedule loaded with scholarship opponents, Blackburn opened the second semester with a sloppy win over Maryville. The rest of the conference schedule proved a cakewalk, as the Beavers won their next eight SLIAC games by no fewer than 14 points.
All told, the Beavers ripped off a 21-2 mark after holidays with their trademark tenacious defense, efficient offense, smart fundamentals, and excellent teamwork. It was never a “star system,” as the Beavers spread the ball around and recorded many wins with relatively low individual scoring totals. Not a single Blackburn player was named to the first-team all-conference squad that year.
In championship seasons, the games get bigger as they go along. On February 15 one of the first tests, as the Beavers played host to an NSCAA district playoff game against Graceland College of southern Indiana.
A loss would dash the national title hopes in a game that many fans and observers felt was unnecessary, as the association allowed no provision for a conference title team, or an obviously top program, to earn automatic bids. As it was, Blackburn’s season rested on a late-addition home date on a night when over nine inches of snow fell in Carlinville.
The deluge delayed Graceland’s arrival for over ninety minutes, and when tip-off finally came, the impatient Beavers were out of sync. But they regrouped, and fought their way to a 65-56 win and a spot in the district title game. The final two SLIAC games followed, and Blackburn captured both to finish off a perfect 12-0 conference season and another league title.
The district championship game was played on February 24 on another snowy night in Carlinville. This time, the opponent was Midway, and Blackburn controlled from the outset in a 61-43 win to earn its spot in the NSCAA championships, set for March 4-6 in Wilmington, Del.
Now, the attention shifted back to the SLIAC and the conference tournament on February 27-28 at Parks College, a now-defunct school in Cahokia. Blackburn drew Webster in the semifinals in the fourth meeting of the season between the two schools. In a physical matchup that was less of a basketball game and more of a smackdown, Blackburn won 84-60 to sweep all meetings with the Gorloks and move on to the finals against Maryville the next day.
With so many big games over the previous two weeks, it was understandable that Blackburn would be sluggish at some point, and they certainly were in the opening half against Maryville. But the mental toughness took over, and the Beavers made big plays down the stretch for a 58-55 win and the third of five straight conference tournament titles.
The only thing left was the national championship, and Blackburn had only a short time off before heading to Delaware, where they routed Ohio Valley 79-59 in the tournament opener on March 4, 1993. Waiting in the semifinals the following day was Trinity, the top seed, who had beaten the Beavers in the title game on their home court in Deerfield a year earlier. With memories of that loss still fresh, Blackburn shot a blistering 62 percent in a lopsided 69-53 win to advance to the championship once again.
Their opponent in the title game would be the hosts, Wilmington, as the Beavers would face the home team in the biggest game of the year for the second straight season. The teams battled into overtime in a classic climax to an incredible season, and Blackburn prevailed 81-72 to take the program’s first national title back to Carlinville.
The Beavers returned home in the midst of spring break, but the celebration lasted well into March. An enthusiastic pep rally was held when the students returned, and signboards across town offered their congratulations. Sexton was named Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Co-Coach of the Year, and the entire campus reveled in the success of its women’s basketball team.
The Beavers went 24-7 that season, the most wins ever by a Blackburn basketball team, male or female. The 24 victories were a SLIAC record for nearly a decade, finally topped by the Webster women’s team in 2001-02. In addition, no men’s basketball team in conference history has ever matched the 24 wins of the 1992-93 Blackburn women, one of the greatest teams in SLIAC history in any sport.
Although the Blackburn women never matched the excellence of 1992-93, their success continued throughout the decade. The 1993-94 Blackburn squad again won the SLIAC regular-season and tournament titles and hosted that year’s NSCAA tournament. Although the Beavers finished fourth, it still proved a memorable experience for everyone involved.
In 1995, Blackburn collected its fifth straight SLIAC tournament title. Sexton left Blackburn following the next season after 15 years and 165 wins, accepting a position as women’s assistant basketball coach at Navy. He subsequently coached at Lehigh, Evansville, and Big Ten member Northwestern. In his place came Matt Garrett, who led the Beavers to another conference tournament title in 1997 and a third-place finish at the 1998 NSCAA tournament, the final appearance at that event for Blackburn.
Though the memories of the 1993 national title still bring joy to many, the succeeding years brought one sad twist of irony. Longtime Blackburn public address announcer Mark Smircina passed away on March 6, 2003 – exactly ten years to the day of the title game in Wilmington.
Today, after twenty-five years, the aura of the 1992-93 women’s basketball national title remains for everyone who was involved in that special time at Blackburn.