As another shot from the rookie rips through the net, we just looked at each other. Two speechless sportswriters on press row for a January 1984 women's basketball game between San Diego State and USC. It was the first and last time we ever communicated, and our eyes said it all. They caught a glimpse of greatness.
We were taking in an epic battle. Achilles versus Hector, in a different age with a different outcome. This was the greatest one-on-one women's basketball matchup ever forgotten: Trojans' great Cheryl Miller versus upstart Aztec Tina Hutchinson.
At the time, everyone knew of Miller and her prowess, but there was a worthy contender in red and black on the court. Hutchinson, a 6-3 cat-quick freshman forward, held her own, answering every shot that her USC counterpart made with icy resolve. Tina was clearly not intimidated by her much more storied rival.
The 6-2 Miller, who once scored 105 points in a high school game, had her hands full with the elusive Hutchinson. She sweat bullets, and not just from running up and down the court. Concentration and concern showed on Cheryl's face throughout the contest. A better-than-average defender, she met her match that day as Hutchinson rained in 41 points.
In the end, the more experienced Miller and her home-court-aided Trojans pulled away, cruising to a 101-84 win (in fact, USC went on to win the NCAA title that year). Rightly so, that's about all that is remembered of the outcome and marks the end of the story... for most.
No one in San Diego State's Sports Information Department seems to know the whereabouts of Hutchinson these days. Even Google detects no more than hints of Tina, a mere trace of her fleeting moments of fame. Hutchinson, arguably the most talented freshman ever to play NCAA women's basketball, is all but forgotten save an entry or two in the record books.
What does linger is the memory of one of the top ballers of her decade, even though that abbreviated career included little more than one good year. The "Freeway Flyer," as some called her, was almost always the most electrifying player on the court wherever she went, even downtown LA.
While Miller was a tough-as-nails scorer-rebounder, Hutchinson was a wiry George Gervin-like high-wire act. Tina combined a spring-loaded vertical jump with a smooth-as-silk shooting touch. Again and again, Hutchinson picked the opposition's pocket (averaging more than six steals per game for 30 games), raced down court with the ball, laid the ball in the bucket, or pulled up on a cushion of air and drained a shot from 20 feet. All around her, fans', writers', and even coaches' jaws dropped as she led the Aztecs to a 24-6 record and a first round win over Oregon in the NCAA Tournament.
Hutchinson still holds the NCAA freshman scoring records that she compiled that one magic year: 29.9 ppg and 898 total points for the 1983-84 season. More than a few of those baskets came against the likes of the rugged Miller. What is more remarkable is that there wasn't a three-point line at the time, and the sharpshooter was deadly from any distance.
Sadly, that marked the pinnacle of Tina's college basketball career. As a sophomore in 1984, the former college freshman phenom and High School Player of the Year (East St. Louis, IL 1982-83) mangled her left knee in an on-court collision. Just a sophomore and with so much more on the horizon, Hutchinson's promising basketball career was suddenly and forever torn by the injury.
Sporting a knee brace, Tina was just never the same on the court. With Penny Toler the leading scorer at 14.1 ppg, the Aztec women slipped to 21-9 Hutchinson's sophomore season, losing to Louisiana Tech in the second round of the tournament.
No one will ever know just how good the Freeway Flyer could have been. Those few of us who were fortunate enough to watch her gracefully shred the opposition, like a focused master chef wielding a razor-sharp paring knife, will always remember her as one of the greatest women's basketball talents of her time; a one-hit wonder with sky-high potential never fully realized.
In fairness, Hutchinson deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the Millers, the Swoops, and the Stiles, at least when the conversation turns to pure hoops skills. Indeed, multiply Tina's 898 points times four full seasons, and she would have bested Stiles' career scoring record by 199 points. Grab your calculator and check the 2009-10 NCAA Women's Basketball Record Book if you don't believe it.
But stats never tell the whole story. The numbers don't capture the passion of the players and classic games long since forgotten. Only aging journalists with hazy memories cling to the past. At least one of us will always remember Hutchinson as the best NCAA women's basketball player that most fans have never heard of.