David Adam

Powerful Soviet basketball team visited Quincy in 1976

Quincy College's Pat Koch, who was listed at 5-foot-4, exchanges gifts with Soviet center Uliana Semenova before an exhibition basketball game against the Soviet Union's women's national team at Memorial Gym in April 1976. Semenova's height was officially listed at 6-10 but was probably closer to 7-2. | Photo Courtesy of Quincy University
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Apr. 23, 2018 8:15 am Updated: Apr. 24, 2018 3:46 am

It's probably the biggest mismatch in the history of basketball in Quincy, but it didn't bother anybody.

The Soviet Union women's national basketball team played a series of exhibition games during April 1976, and one of them was played in what was then known as Memorial Gym on the Quincy College campus on April 20.

The visitors, with a starting front line of 6-6, 6-6 and 6-5, steamrolled a team of six Quincy College players and six stars from Illinois colleges 135-23.

"It sounded like a great adventure," said Michele Quinn Armendariz, a freshman at QC at the time.

Then with a laugh, she added, "We didn't have a chance."

Yet to this day, regardless of the score, those involved understood what a memorable opportunity they had.

"It's just remarkable that it happened in Quincy," said Sharlene Peter, who coached the all-star team along with Lorene Ramsey from Illinois Cental College.

The Soviet women's team had made a similar tour of the United States in 1974, and their visit in 1976 was in advance of the Olympic games that were to be played on Montreal that summer. Women's basketball was to be offered as an Olympic sport for the first time in 1976.

The Soviet Union had the best women's team in the world for more than three decades, going 152-2 in major international competition from the 1950s through the mid-1980s. After finishing second in the 1957 World Championships, the USSR won in 1959, 1964, 1967, 1971 and 1975, then boycotted the 1979 games before winning again in 1983.

The Soviet team started its eight-game tour with a 124-32 victory over Providence College. It played in Memphis, Tenn., West Allis, Wis., Cudahy, Wis., and Indianola, Iowa, winning its first five games by an average of 116-44.

The opponents for the game in Quincy had a total of three practice days to prepare.

"Did we know how good they were? No," Peter said. "Were we impressed when we saw them? Absolutely. How many teams can put on the floor with a front line that averaged 6-6? It was just incredible how good they were."

Before the game started, the teams lined up on the court and exchanged gifts. One of the most memorable moments from that exchange was when 5-foot-4 Pat Koch exchanged gifts with Soviet center Uliana Semenova, whose height was officially listed at 6-10 but was probably closer to 7-2.

"Each one of us got to shake hands with one individual," Armendariz said. "We had a bag of souvenirs, and they gave us a tiny little pin that said ‘USSR' that was no bigger than a nickel."

The local team trailed at halftime 62-12, and even though the Soviet team didn't use its full-court press, it forced multiple turnovers with a half-court trap and dazzled the crowd with its fast-break expertise.

"It was a much more physical game than we were typically allowed to play," Armendariz said.

It was difficult to gauge what the experience was like for the Soviet women because of the language barrier. Peter hosted a dinner at her home for the teams, and she remembered her daughter getting a Russian stacking doll, known as a matryoshka, as a souvenir.

Armendariz recalled the post-game reception at the student union as much as the game.

"There was a dinner and a bar, and we got to kind of mingle with them, but there was no opportunity for real communication," she said. "They had an interpreter, but I don't remember speaking directly to their players except for smiling and asking for autographs.

"We had this beautiful buffet of meat and food, but the Soviet women seemed to go to the bar area. What they were doing was taking all the fruit garnishes like lemons and lime and cherries and putting them on their plate. Fresh fruit was something they didn't have a lot of access to."

The Soviet women went on to play two exhibitions against the U.S. national team, which featured Ann Meyers, Nancy Lieberman and Pat Head (who went on to coach the University of Tennessee women's team as Pat Summitt). The USSR won 60-56 in Fullerton, Calif., and 92-69 in Los Angeles.

At the Olympics, the Soviet women won all five of its games in the pool play format by an average of 31.6 points, including a 112-77 victory over the U.S. team, to claim the gold medal.

Armendariz, who now lives in El Paso, Texas, tried to compare the Soviet team to the teams that recently played in the women's Final Four.

"Take someone like (Mississippi State's 6-foot-7) Teiara McGowan," she said. "No offense, but (the Soviets) were more agile and faster than she was. That's the comparison I would make. You didn't find players like them playing college ball in the 1970s."

The differing economic and political ideologies between the countries at the time didn't play a factor in this event.

"Before the game started, sure, the political side of it was more of a conversation," Peter said. "Once they were in Quincy and we interacted, it never even entered anybody's mind. I guess that's the beauty of sport."