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45 Years Ago: Memphis State Women Defeated Tennessee and Embraced Memphis

The 1978-79 Media Guide featuring Betty Booker (left) and Linda Street (right).
The 1978-79 Media Guide featuring Betty Booker (left) and Linda Street (right).

Forty-five years ago, on Feb. 24, 1979, the Memphis State women’s basketball team defeated the University of Tennessee Volunteers for the first and only time in program history, 79-75.  

“If anybody asks about my record, I say I don’t know my exact record,” said longtime MSU coach Mary Lou Johns. “But I will tell you, we beat Tennessee once.” 

“We played one of our best games,” said leading scorer Betty Booker-Parks. “Everybody played well, and we beat Tennessee.”

The 1978-79 season was a record year for the Memphis State women’s basketball team. Memphis finished 26-7, good for a 78.8 winning percentage. The Tigers were ranked in the Associated Press National poll for the final eight weeks of the season, peaking at 15th. 

“It's kind of like you're a chef, and you keep trying to find the right ingredients, and you get a lot of it right,” said Johns of the 78-79 team. “Sometimes you just get a bunch where no one gets injured, everybody plays their role, and everything clicks.” 

The Tigers were led by Betty Booker, now Betty Booker-Parks, and Linda Street, who came to Memphis State as freshmen in 1976 and were two of the first female athletes to get athletic scholarships at the university. 

“The two of them, to this day, are best friends,” Johns said. 

Booker-Parks is the program’s all-time leading scorer with 2,835 points. Her number 31 is retired by the university. She went on to play professionally, before going into coaching and teaching. 

“If there had been a three-point shot, there’s no telling how many points she would have scored,” said Johns. 

Like Booker-Parks, Linda Street’s number 14 is retired by the University of Memphis. Street was the first player above 6’ in program history and is the all-time leading rebounder with 1,453 rebounds. 

“She was a Memphis kid,” said Johns. “She was very coachable and a super leader.” 

At Tennessee, legendary coach Pat Summitt, who finished her career with eight national championships and 32 SEC titles before her life was cut short due to Alzheimer's, was entering her fifth season at the helm in 1978-79. While her best teams were still to come, the 1978-79 Volunteers won 30 games and made the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women’s (AIAW) Final Four. 

“She did a tremendous amount for women’s basketball, and she produced players who continue to work for the betterment of women’s basketball,” Johns said of Summitt. “A lot of people played her for years but never beat her. I don’t like to brag, but I will say I beat her once, and I’m proud of it.” 

There is little information available on the game itself, but the environment at the fieldhouse played a big role in the Memphis victory. 

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The Memphis State University fieldhouse as shown in the 1979-80 team media guide.

“All I remember is that it was crazy,” said starting center Linda Street. “It was packed. The fieldhouse was full.” 

“I’ve been to several of the big games, like when we hosted the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), but nothing compares," said Johns. “When we played Ole Miss or Tennessee, we had packed houses, and it was all bleachers, so a lot more people could fit in there.” 

Since the 1978-79 meeting, Tennessee has won 20 consecutive games against Memphis, but this season, the Tigers took the Vols to overtime in Knoxville. First-year coach Alex Simmons, who played at Tennessee for Summitt, has brought the rivalry back to Memphis’ schedule. 

“It feels like they haven’t scheduled us at the fieldhouse in a long time,” said Street. “I’m hoping they come play us at the fieldhouse next year.” 

The 78-79 players still find the time to have gatherings with each other year after year. The leadership on the team helped create bonds that are still strong today.

“We meet up at her (Coach Johns’) house every December,” said Street. “We gather to keep connecting.” 

Booker, Street, and Johns all keep up with the program’s ebbs and flows to this day, and they attend games when they can. As the current team prepares to host UAB Saturday on alumni day, some of the members of the only Tigers team to beat Tennessee will be there supporting their alma mater.

“We have a slogan,” said Booker-Parks. “Once a Lady Tiger, always a Lady Tiger.” 

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