by Jim Sumner, Blue Devil Weekly
DURHAM, N.C. - Duke women’s basketball has become a nationally prominent program over the last decade, complete with Final Fours, All-Americas and ACC championships. The Devils have gone to the NCAA Tournament each of the last 12 years and they tend to stick around a while once they get there.
It hasn’t always been this way. Duke began its women’s program in 1975-76, under Emma Jean Howard, and went 0-14 and 2-12 in the first two intercollegiate seasons. UNC Greensboro assistant Debbie Leonard became Duke’s first full-time coach in 1977, and her first team went 1-19.
The best thing about starting 3-45 is that the only direction to go is up. But it wasn’t easy. The program was under-funded throughout the 1980s. Leonard accepted the Duke job only after turning down a coach/teach offer from High Point Andrews High School — a position that offered more money than did Duke.
Leonard never had the maximum number of scholarships and money was short for recruiting, travel and equipment. She can laugh about it now. “I was great with a budget,” she says. “I had to be.” Even with free admission, many home crowds numbered in the hundreds.
Still, Leonard found some players who “played for the love of the game and the quality of the school.” Talents like Barb Krause, Stacy Hurd and Jennifer Chestnut helped “grow the program and made it possible for us to knock on the doors of better prospects and not be turned away.” Duke had its first winning season in 1980, 14-13, and gradually became competitive in the ACC, a conference dominated in the early 1980s by North Carolina State and Maryland.
Eventually, the blue-chippers came on board. Connie Goins, Miss Basketball in Kentucky, signed with Duke in 1982, as did touted post player Sarah Sullivan. Duke went 15-10 the next season.
The biggest catch was Chris Moreland, a 6-foot-1 forward from Mt. Vernon High School, in Alexandria, Va. Moreland was heavily recruited by national powers, including the home state Cavaliers. Her visit to Duke was crucial. “I loved the campus. The team was welcoming. It seemed like a good environment,” she recalls. But most importantly, “Duke offered me a chance to play right away. Some of the other programs talked about me waiting my turn, coming off the bench. I wanted to be an impact player and right away. Duke was building and I wanted to help it build.”
Moreland notes that whenever she mentioned Duke, other coaches recruiting her had a quizzical look. “Well, it’s a nice school and everything,” they would say, “but not much of a basketball program.”
Moreland exploded on the ACC scene in 1984-85 with the immediate impact she sought. She averaged 17.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per game and was voted the ACC rookie of the year, the first Duke player to win a conference-wide award.
Lots of first-times were associated with Moreland’s career. Duke defeated Clemson in the 1985 ACC Tournament, the program’s first win in the tournament after seven first-round losses. In 1986, Moreland’s sophomore season, she became the first Duke woman to make first-team All-ACC and the first to lead the ACC in scoring. The 1986 team was the first Duke team to be nationally ranked and the first to win 20 games, the first to post a winning mark in the ACC and the first to advance to the postseason.
But the postseason wasn’t the NCAAs. Despite a 20-7 record, a third-place ACC finish (9-5) and a pair of wins over both Clemson and North Carolina, Duke did not receive an invitation to the 40-team NCAA Tournament.
Duke did accept an invitation to the women’s NIT in Amarillo, Texas. The Blue Devils edged West Texas State, lost to Northwestern State and Notre Dame, and finished 21-9.
“It was very disappointing,” Leonard muses. “Maybe people were surprised that we were good. We weren’t really on the national radar yet and it took a while for us to register. I didn’t make a big deal about it. Our team was smart enough to figure it out for themselves.”
“The biggest thing we learned from the WNIT,” says Katie Meier, a sophomore forward in 1986, “is that we didn’t want to go back to Amarillo again.”
Moreland and Meier made sure that didn’t happen. Two of the most talented players in Duke history, the M&M duo presented a double whammy to opponents. Moreland was a dominant post player despite her 6-1 size. She was tough, intelligent, hard-working and fundamentally sound, with above-average mobility and a sure shooting stroke that extended to 15 feet. She was also an exceptional rebounder, mastering positioning and angles. In fact, her 11.1 rebounds per game remains the highest career average in ACC history.
“When we recruited Chris,” Leonard says, “we told her we were going to build the program around her. She was our anchor.”
But it wasn’t always smooth. Leonard and Moreland both had fiery personalities that sometimes clashed. “I could be stubborn and opinionated, no doubt about it,” Moreland says. “It took some time for me to learn the difference between expressing my opinion during practice and expressing it after practice behind closed doors.”
Meier came to Duke a year after Moreland and followed her as ACC rookie of the year. Leonard still calls Meier the “heart and soul of the team” and compares her to former Duke men’s star Jim Spanarkel because of her “versatility, her smarts, her instincts, her ability to find a way to win. She understood concepts quicker than anybody I coached.”
Although nominally a forward, the Illinois native had the ball in her hands more often than not. She led Duke in assists in 1987 with 129, a school record that lasted until 1996.
The two skillfully worked together. “I had never played with anyone as talented as Chris and I wasn’t sure how it would work,” Meier says. “Chris made it easy. She took me aside early and told me that we could work together and both be better. ‘You score 20 points and that helps me score 20 and it helps the team.’
“I thought my primary job was to get the ball to Chris. It was pretty easy to get assists with Chris on your team. She had the best hands I’ve ever seen. She never bobbled an entry pass.”
“Katie had that rare ability to be a star and a complementary player at the same time,” Leonard says. “When Chris was on, Katie would feed her. When Chris was double-teamed, Katie would find an open spot and Chris would get the ball to her. There weren’t enough defenders to stop both of them.”
M&M had help, of course. Sullivan, a fifth-year senior in 1987, and 6-4 freshman Sue Harnett enabled Moreland to spend most of her time at forward. Sullivan was a shot-blocking specialist who still holds some school records in that area and an excellent interior passer. Leonard calls junior guard Paula Anderson “the perfect role player. A great decision maker.” Kim Hunter and Carolyn Sonzogni split time at the point, while Tracy Christopher filled in at both forward spots. “We weren’t the quickest team in the world,” says Leonard. “We had to teach angles, positioning, spacing.”
Meier, who went into coaching and is now the head coach at Miami, has some thoughts on Leonard’s coaching skills. “Coach Leonard was very smart, very advanced. We did lots of if-then scenarios. The offense was very conceptual, highly intellectual. Think two passes ahead, understand the angles. We were a very smart team, a very good passing team. She always figured out ways to play to our strengths.”
Duke began the 1986-‘87 season ranked No. 22. The Devils opened in Chicago, in the DePaul Tournament. A win over Florida was followed by a loss to the host team and an exit from the polls. Duke had better luck in the Cahill Invitational at St. John’s after Christmas, defeating St. John’s and Kentucky. “We came of age in that tournament,” Leonard says. “Beating two good teams away from home gave us a sense of the possibilities.”
There were some tough early outings in the ACC. The Devils lost their conference opener 65-64 at Maryland, and Wake Forest shocked Duke at the buzzer in Durham. Duke led much of the game at Chapel Hill but couldn’t execute down the stretch and lost to UNC 76-68 despite Meier’s 23 points.
A trip to Charlottesville was a disaster, as Duke was outclassed 71-43. “It still upsets me that we never won there,” Moreland says. “Maybe I wanted it too much. My friends and family were always at the game. Debbie Ryan had recruited me hard and I wanted to show everybody that I had made the right decision.” Moreland was held to 12 points.
The loss at Virginia dropped Duke to 2-5 in the ACC, but the Devils regrouped. Georgia Tech fell by 19, Wake Forest by 21. Moreland was consistently dominant, a 22-point, 13-rebound game at Wake Forest a typical outing.
But it may have been the Feb. 3 outing at North Carolina State that turned around the season. State was 21-2 all-time against Duke and the 13th-ranked Wolfpack already boasted a win at Duke earlier in the season. State led 17-11 early but the Devils fought back for a 29-27 lead at the half. They extended the lead to 46-35, State closed to 48-45.
Then Meier took over, scoring on jumpers, off the dribble, in transition. She tallied 23 points after intermission, 36 for the game, converting 15-of-18 field goals. Moreland did her part, with 20 points and nine rebounds. After the game, State coach Kay Yow admitted, “We didn’t have anyone who could stop her. She had an exceptional night and that exceptional night came at our expense.” Meier still remembers this night vividly. “It was one of those rare games when you feel like you’re in total command. I could do anything.”
Later in the month, Duke avenged the Virginia embarrassment. The Cavaliers came into Durham on Feb. 21 ranked seventh in the country, with a 23-2 record. Moreland and Meier were held to 16 and nine points, respectively, but the complementary players stepped up. Harnett, Anderson and Christopher combined for 28 points. Hunter hit an 18-foot jumper with 17 seconds left and the Duke defense kept Virginia from getting off a shot in the frantic final seconds as Duke won 77-76.
Duke hoped to continue the run in the home finale against North Carolina. The game was a fund-raiser for the Ronald McDonald House. An ice storm forced the game to be cancelled on its original date but a school-record 4,872 fans attended the following week. North Carolina shot 78.6 percent from the field in the second half and pulled away for an 83-67 win. Still, says Leonard, “playing in front of that many people in Cameron told us that we were heading in the right direction. It was very exciting.”
Duke didn’t have much luck in the ACC Tournament in the 1980s and that was the case in 1987. The first-round game was against Maryland, a classic 4-5 match-up. Duke led by as many as eight points early but Maryland made the big plays late, breaking a 60-60 tie in the final minute and holding on for a 64-62 win, despite Moreland’s 21 points. As consolation, Moreland was named the ACC player of the year.
The Maryland loss dropped Duke to 18-9. A better record the previous season hadn’t impressed the NCAA. “It was wait-and-see,” Moreland says. “My attitude was to not expect anything and be surprised.” She was surprised. Duke got the NCAA bid.
Duke opened at home against Manhattan. The Devils started slowly, trailing 29-21 before rallying to tie the game at the half. Duke gradually pulled away in the second half for a 70-55 win, the first NCAA Tournament victory in the program’s history. Moreland led all scorers with 25 points but the real story was Meier, who gave Duke another first, with a 16-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist triple-double.
The win sent Duke north to a second-round match with fifth-ranked Rutgers. “This was the toughest place to play in the country,” says Leonard. “They had rabid fans and lots of them.”
They also had All-America center Sue Wicks, who scored 23 points, with 11 rebounds. Moreland more than held her own, with 21 points. Duke trailed most of the game but was still in range at 58-52 with four minutes left. Rutgers held tough, however, and won 78-64. Duke committed 25 turnovers and shot poorly from the perimeter. “We were a little nervous,” recalls the coach. “We hurried passes and shots. They concentrated on Chris and gave us lots of open looks. We just didn’t make the shots.”
Meier couldn’t buy a shot, going 3-of-17. “The more I missed, the more I pressed, and the more I pressed, the more I missed. It was a miserable night.” Anderson scored 12 points, Harnett 11. Duke ended the season 19-10.
Most of the team returned the following season. Duke started 12-0 before a series of injuries short-circuited the season. Leonard jokes that trainer Carol McCauley was the team MVP. Duke ended 17-11 and turned down an invitation to the WNIT. “I wanted to go,” Moreland says. “I really wasn’t happy with the way the season ended. I wanted some closure. But I understand why the rest of the team felt the way they did.”
Three members of the team — Moreland, Meier and Harnett — went on to become charter inductees in the Duke Hall of Honor, and Moreland was the first women’s basketball player inducted in the Duke Sports Hall of Fame in 2001.
Moreland ended her career with 2,232 points and 1,229 rebounds, school records at the time. Her 20.1 career scoring average is the best in Duke women’s history and she is the only Duke basketball player, man or woman, to lead Duke in scoring and rebounding four seasons.
Moreland played one season in France, where she says she got the closure she needed. She retired, homesick and concerned about getting hurt by European players “who weren’t as refined but more than made up for it in physicality. I got out with my knees intact.” Unlike Meier, she never got the coaching itch. “Coaching to me is more about teaching and education than wins and loses. I’ve seen too many people stressed all the time because of the pressure to win. It’s not for me.”
Moreland married John Culbertson, an environmental consultant, in 1998 and now answers to Christine Culbertson. They have two children, Parker and Ayla. The Culbertsons live in Orlando, and Duke’s first female hoops superstar is a project manager for Orlando Utilities. “Basketball gave me a chance to get an education at a great university and a chance to see the world,” she says. “It opened doors. I took it as far as I could.”
Leonard got out of coaching after the 1992 season. She’s in the insurance business now but remains close to the game as a television analyst. “I wish we could have built a little better on the Moreland years,” she says, “but Gail (Goestenkors) is doing such a great job. Duke still has the smartest kids in the world. I feel very good about what we did at Duke. I have a real feeling of accomplishment.”