1986 USA Women Usher in Golden Era
In 1986 cracks were beginning to show in the Soviet Bloc’s Iron Curtain. From the Chernobyl disaster, to the Soviet War in Afghanistan, which was already over six years old, the USSR’s days were numbered.
The women’s basketball world mirrored what was happening on the political front as the previously dominant Soviets began to crumble on the hardwood as well.
The USA was the underdog heading into the summer’s competitions. Although they were nearing the top, the USA women still hadn’t defeated the Soviets since a 51-48 victory back at the 1957 Worlds.
The Soviet women, on the other hand, at that time boasted of 152 wins in their past 154 major international games (Olympics, World Cups and European Championships). Their two losses were to Bulgaria in the 1958 European Championship and to the U.S. in the 1957 FIBA World Cup, and they had never lost a game in the Soviet Union.
Led by future Hall of Famers Teresa Edwards and Cheryl Miller, the U.S. did the unthinkable in 1986 and toppled the Soviet giants.
Former USC star and USA leading scorer in the World Cup gold medal game, Miller said about the Soviets in the final contest: “I did get a little nervous. They were setting tremendous picks and they were hard to defend against.
“This is probably the most talented team I’ve played on,” Miller added. “We’ve got a lot of heart and spirit, and the girls were great, willing to adjust and sacrifice.”
Six years prior, in 1980, the USA did not participate in the Olympic Games in Moscow, Soviet Union, and the USSR women claimed gold with a 6-0 record. And in 1984, the Soviets did not compete in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, which saw the USA women finish 6-0 and with the gold medal. The boycotts of the previous two Olympiads had tarnished the Olympic gold and made World Cup gold the most precious and prestigious of all.
For the Americans, there remained some of the same ingredients from their 1984 Olympic championship team. Miller, Edwards and Anne Donovan topped the roster, but the addition of fresh faces such as Kamie Ethridge and Katrina McClain completed the winning combination.
The summer of 1986 was spent in the Soviet Union. The USA competed in the Goodwill Games in July and then returned in August for the World Cup. Beating the favored Soviets on their home court once was a tall order, beating them twice, nearly impossible. USA head coach Kay Yow of North Carolina State University, however, would have the young women ready to meet the challenge.
The USA squad breezed past every opponent it faced in the Goodwill Games, including a once dominant Soviet Union team, which it embarrassed 83-60 in the final game. Could such a stunning defeat happen twice in one summer on the Soviets’ home court? The Soviet Union had no intention of letting that occur; five team members and the head coach were replaced for the World Cup competition.
In the World Cup, the USA picked up right where it left off in the Goodwill Games, defeating teams in the Vilnius pool play by as many as 53 points. This time the Americans would enter the gold medal game in Moscow as the tournament favorite against the Soviet Union.
Although the Soviets were able to close within nine points in the second half, the USA proved too powerful for them to overtake. Pushing the score over the centennial mark, the United States posted a 108-88 victory over the Soviets to win the world title and record a compile a 18-0 record for the summer’s competitions. In addition, the victory ended a long dominance in women’s basketball by the Soviet Union and dubbed the USA as the new power in the basketball world.
|The 1986 USA World Cup Team cuts down the 'nyets' in Moscow after capturing gold.
Participating in the “Double Gold” summer were Cindy Brown (Long Beach State), Cynthia Cooper (USC), Clarissa Davis (Texas), Donovan (Old Dominion), Edwards (Georgia), Ethridge (Texas), Jennifer Gillom (Mississippi), Fran Harris (Texas), McClain (Georgia), Suzie McConnell (Penn State), Miller (USC) and Teresa Weatherspoon (Louisiana Tech). Rounding out coach Yow’s staff were Marianne Stanley of Old Dominion and Sylvia Hatchell of the University of North Carolina.
Twenty years later, after Donovan was named head coach of the 2006 USA World Cup Team, she told USA Basketball “We had gone there earlier in the summer for the Goodwill Games and won gold medal, but everybody attributed that to, ‘Well, they weren’t really playing. Wait until the World Championship.’ So, to go back to Russia and beat them twice in the same summer, that’s when the guard changed. The U.S. women were now the best of the best, and from that point on we’ve been running.
“It was unbelievable,” she added. “At that point I had been with USA Basketball for close to 10 years, and a lot of the players had been around the block. We were definitely fazed by the significance of that win. We all felt really good about the Goodwill Games gold medal, but to go back and win gold in the Soviet Union again, when everyone said it wasn’t going to happen. There was tremendous joy to think we might be a part of the shift in the women’s game.”
The USA will be in the hunt to earn a 10th World Cup gold medal at the 2018 FIBA World Cup Sept. 22-30 in Tenerife, Spain. Follow along on the team’s journey on usab.com and through USA Basketball’s social media as the team goes for gold.