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First on the Court: the “Girls” of UNM Basketball
Buried in the December 23, 1898, edition of the Albuquerque Morning Democrat between local tidbits of spring-cleaning and the ladies’ library committee meetings, a curious item stands out: the birth of basketball in the Territory of New Mexico. In bloomers and bows with the letters “UNM” sewn across their chests, two girls’ teams, the Olympians and Gladiators, played their first season with “vim and interest.” At first, “the girls” as they referred to themselves - played in the wooden gym with the doors closed and only girls in the audience.
The rules of the game were simple and non-aggressive. Girls played a half-court game with five to ten players on a side. They were not allowed to dribble the ball or guard players and running was only allowed while the ball was in the air. It was not lady-like to participate in sports and physicians even deemed it harmful to a woman’s reproductive health.
Late in the first season, the girls issued a challenge to the Las Cruces College basketball team for a match in Albuquerque. The two teams played at the Armory Hall on First Street “under electric light.” UNM won, 4 to 2. It was reported, “all girls played with dash and cleverness.” In an effort to draw a crowd, a reception and dance followed the game. Admission was 50 cents. In “the girls” second season, 1899, the Mirage, the school newspaper, reported the team ordered matching uniforms. “The suits are a dark blue with white trimmings, and are very becoming.”
Early in the second season, boys from the surveying class laid out a regulation court, 45 x 70 feet, for the girls to play on. They took the upright posts from the football field and made basketball goals for the girls. The athletics department was poor and after the basketball season, the same goals were borrowed to construct part of the framework for the back of the net of the tennis court.
Support for the girls’ basketball team is evidenced in 1899 by an editorial in The Mirage. The editor recommended the girls’ names be added to the Athletic Association roster, an all-male organization.
In January 1900, the reported that all the university’s sporting energy has been turned loose on the “little gridiron,” and “athletics at the university can be summed up in the words ‘basket ball.’”
Although the UNM men formed a basketball team in 1900, they did not give it their all. Records show they had a one-game season that year. In 1902, The Mirage reported that men’s practice was “marked by poor attendance and listless work.” As a result, they dropped from a three-game season in 1902-03 to a one-game season in 1903-04.
The ladies continued their play over the next decade, extending invitations to Silver City, Las Vegas, and Gallup in addition to Las Cruces. They continued to organize their team each year and were supported by fellow students. The men’s team even practiced with them. The Tri-Alpha fraternity had a reception for them and the Mirage reported the ladies’ successes beyond their scores declaring their college spirit as the best advertisement possible for the school. In 1912, however, the faculty ruled that the women’s basketball team could not travel outside the city to play. As a result, few games were played. The 1920 season was a one-game season played against the Albuquerque Business College.
The face of the game changed again in 1921. The players formed inter-sorority teams and limited their play to campus. In 1930, the Women’s Athletic Association was formed: it sponsored field hockey, tennis, volleyball, and swimming, along with basketball.
Marie Hays, class of 1936, an athlete in her college days, recalls being told sports competition “wasn’t good for girls. They said we weren’t equipped physically or mentally for competition. That was a real blow to our egos.”
Despite the lack of support, women continued their sports program and in the 1960s began competing in the Intermountain Conference. UNM women began their long fight for equality of women’s sports with the passing of Title IX in 1972. Former Associate Athletic Director Linda Estes led the fight at UNM. “When Title IX came about, the question of funding became a legal one,” said Estes. UNM was ahead of its time. UNM President Ferrell Heady went before the Legislative Finance Committee and announced his priority for women’s athletics even if it meant taking the money from the men’s program. The budget went from $4,300 in 1972-73 to $35,000 in 1973- 74.
The 2011-12 season marked a new era of women’s basketball after the retirement of Head Coach Don Flanagan. Yvonne Sanchez, an assistant under Flanagan for over a decade, was named Head Coach. In Sanchez’s first year, the Lobos made Mountain West Tournament history. New Mexico became the first seventh seed to defeat a seconded-seeded team after defeating UNLV. UNM went on to defeat Boise State and advanced to the championship game of the Mountain West Tournament. The Lobos were unable to pull off the victory in the finals, but they re-wrote the conference’s history book during their time in Las Vegas.
The 2012-13 Lobos continued the winning tradition by improving its win total by six from the year before and winning at least one game in the conference tournament for a seventh straight year.
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