Blackburn basketball national title 20 years ago

Blackburn basketball national title 20 years ago

By Tom Emery
first week of March 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of one of the hallmark events in the history of Blackburn College athletics – the National Small College Athletic Association championship season of the Blackburn women’s basketball team.

It may seem hard to believe, but it has been twenty years since the 1992-93 Blackburn women’s basketball squad captured the program’s first NSCAA title. Now is a great time to look back–and remember one of the most memorable seasons of any Blackburn team.

In retrospect, the national title season was hardly a surprise. The Blackburn women’s basketball program was at its zenith, coming off three straight successful seasons with some of the best players in the history of the program. After years of building, the Beavers had broken through with a 15-11 season in 1989-90 that was capped off with a third-place finish at the NSCAA tournament in Midway, Ky. The 1990-91 team kept on moving up with an 18-12 season and a share of the first-ever St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular-season women’s basketball title. The Beavers then rolled to the first-ever SLIAC tournament title and went back to Midway, where they again captured the third-place NSCAA trophy.

But the road to the national championship puzzle was laid in 1991-92, when Blackburn racked up a 20-10 season and another SLIAC tournament title. Next came the NSCAA tournament, hosted by Trinity International University in Deerfield, Ill., and the Beavers edged Mount Senario, Wis. in their opening game before knocking off top-seeded Wilmington, Del. in the semifinals. However, the Beavers could not finish off their dream of a national title, as Trinity prevailed 68-54 to send Blackburn home in second place.

The elusive 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 the program in 1981, made it clear what the objectives for the season were. Another SLIAC title was expected, as was another conference tournament championship. But topping it all was the goal of an NSCAA championship, and those three objectives stayed in the back of everyone’s mind throughout the winter.

Certainly, there were 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 would land her in the Blackburn Athletics Hall of Fame, while senior Marsha Campbell brought defensive strength to the small forward spot. Senior Lynn Whisenton added more strength in the front court from a long and deep bench that also featured the likes of junior guard Teena Rhodes, a player who could have started for most other teams in the conference. All in all, it was a physically talented and mentally tough group from top to bottom, and they knew what it took to lead the drive to a title.

The non-conference schedule was loaded with scholarship opponents, which, for a small NCAA Division III program like Blackburn, always proves a challenge.  There were highlights before Christmas, to be sure; among them was an overtime win at Illinois Wesleyan in the season’s third game and the title of the DePauw Tournament in early December. But a close loss at McKendree, an NAIA program, followed, and the final game before Christmas was a four-point home loss to longtime rival Eureka on December 12 in a contest highlighted by rough play and an exchange of cheap shots. As a result, Blackburn took a 3-5 record into the holidays.

Still, the pieces were in place for a special season. The Beavers had played some good basketball against a tough schedule, and the conference slate awaited. A sloppy performance in a win over Maryville opened the second semester, but Blackburn was about to rocket to the top

The rest of the conference schedule proved a cakewalk, as the Beavers won their next eight SLIAC games by no fewer than 14 points. No team in the league could touch Blackburn, as the Beavers combined their trademark tenacious defense with an efficient offense that featured strong fundamentals, excellent teamwork, and intelligent, overall effort. It was hardly a “star system,” as the Beavers spread the ball around and recorded many of their wins with relatively low individual scoring totals; not one Blackburn player was named to the first-team all-conference squad that year. As Blackburn charged through the conference, the crowds at the Beaverdome grew as the squad captured the imagination of the student body and set the tone for what was to come.

When the Beavers did lose, which certainly wasn’t often, they were even memorable in defeat. The first loss after Christmas was at powerhouse Washington University on Jan. 12, 1993, when the Beavers rallied from a 23-point deficit to cut the lead to six late before falling. The only other loss of the second semester was at SIUE, an NCAA Division II program, as Blackburn trailed by only five at halftime in an eventual 68-46 loss. Despite playing an opponent whose enrollment was 24 times larger, the Beavers actually left Edwardsville feeling like they should have won, a thought shared by observers as well.

The SIUE game was the middle of a key three-game stretch for Blackburn that opened with a narrow five-point win at Webster two nights before, one of only three conference wins by a single-digit margin.  On Feb. 15 came another huge test, 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 as 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 went on to a hard-fought 65-56 win to move on to the district title. The final two conference games followed, and Blackburn captured both to finish off a perfect 12-0 SLIAC season and another league title.

The district championship game was played on Feb. 24, 1993, which again proved to be a snowy night.  This time, the opponent was Midway, and Blackburn controlled from the outset in a 61-43 win to ensure their spot in the NSCAA championships, set for March 4-6 in Wilmington, Del.

And back and forth from conference to nationals it went, much to the delight of everyone involved. Now, the attention shifted back to the SLIAC tournament on Feb. 27-28, 1993, which was to be played at Parks College, a now-defunct school in Cahokia.  Blackburn drew Webster, whose competitive season was their best up to that time (in the days when Webster was still a struggling athletic program, far removed from their usual place near the top of the SLIAC today) in the fourth meeting of the season between the two schools. In a physical match-up that was less of a basketball game and more of a smack-down, 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 when it counted to edge the Saints 58-55 and win the third of the program’s five straight conference tournament titles between 1991-95.

The only thing left was the national title, and Blackburn had only a day or two off before heading to Delaware, where they routed Ohio Valley 79-59 in their tournament opener on March 4, 1993. Waiting for them in the semifinals the next day was Trinity, the top seed, who had beaten the Beavers in the title game 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 on March 6 would be the hosts, Wilmington, as the Beavers would face the home team in the biggest game of the year for the second straight time. The teams battled into overtime in a classic climax to an incredible season, and Blackburn prevailed 81-72 to come back to Carlinville with the program’s first national title.

The Beavers returned home in the midst of spring break at Blackburn, but the celebration lasted well into March. An enthusiastic pep rally was held when the students returned, and billboards 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 their women’s basketball team.

All told, the Beavers went 24-7 that season, which is the most wins ever by a Blackburn basketball team, male or female. The 24 wins 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, which is unquestionably one of the greatest teams the SLIAC has ever known.

Although Blackburn never achieved the greatness of the 1992-93 squad, the rest of the decade saw a continuation of success.  The 1993-94 Blackburn team again won the SLIAC regular-season and tournament titles and was given the honor of hosting that year’s NSCAA tournament. Although the Beavers finished fourth, it still proved a memorable experience for everyone involved in the event.

In 1995, Blackburn won their fifth straight SLIAC tournament title. Sexton left Blackburn following the next year after 15 years and 165 wins, accepting a position as women’s assistant basketball coach at Navy (he later 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.

In a sad twist of irony, longtime Blackburn public address announcer Mark Smircina passed away on March 6, 2003–exactly ten years to the day that the women’s basketball team won their national title in Wilmington.

As two decades have passed, the glow of the 1992-93 national title at Blackburn is still evident. There is no doubt that glow will remain in the hearts of everyone who witnessed one of the most special seasons that any Blackburn sports team ever enjoyed.