Twenty-five years later, Daphne Donnelly still fumes about the game — and national championship — that got away.
No, not “got away,” she said. That game, Donnelly insists, was taken away — by the referees.
“I remember it,” she said, “like it was yesterday.”
So does Sylvia Hatchell, Donnelly’s coach at Francis Marion College (now University) from 1979-83.
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“She’s exactly right; we got cheated,” said Hatchell, women’s basketball coach at North Carolina. “That’s my worse loss in 34 years coaching.”
The details of that 1983 NAIA Area 7 championship game — how Francis Marion, winners of the 1981-82 AIAW small-college title, led at Campbellsville, Ky., only to lose 105-103 in double overtime — remain vivid, and painful, to both women.
“They got half their points at the free throw line,” Donnelly said from her Atlanta office. “Afterward, the refs celebrated with the (Campbellsville) team.”
“We had a great team, big lead, and they fouled out (Donnelly and three other starters),” Hatchell said. “In NAIA, the host team provided the refs back then. There wasn’t a lot you could do.”
Except, of course, carry a grudge a quarter-century later.
That’s not to suggest Donnelly, or Hatchell, are sore losers. It’s just neither is a good loser.
That trait is in large part what made the 5-foot-11 Donnelly one of the best women’s basketball players in Francis Marion’s tradition-rich (two national titles) history and one of the best athletes to emerge from Marion County.
“She’s the best I ever coached in 48 years,” said retired Mullins High coach Fred Senter. “Offense, defense, ball-handling ... and competitive. She’d spit in your eye to beat you.”
“On the court,” Hatchell agreed, “Daphne was mean as a snake.”
In four seasons at Francis Marion, Donnelly’s abilities and single-minded devotion to winning led the Patriots to a 97-27 record. She averaged 19.9 points and 12.2 rebounds per game for her career, topped by her 24.6-point, 14.8-rebound senior season.
Later, Donnelly played professionally in Spain, Sweden and with the WABA’s Atlanta Comets, before settling into her job of the past 20 years as manager of two U.S. Army fitness centers at Fort McPherson.
“I stopped playing when I turned 40,” she said, laughing. “The game got too fast for me.”
For Donnelly, that’s the reverse of how it began.
She grew up in Mullins as the next-to-youngest of 12 siblings, including five athletic brothers. Their father, Henry, a brick mason and building contractor, erected a basketball goal in the well-used backyard, and “we played basketball, football, baseball ... but basketball was the one I loved most.”
Brothers Ronald, Alton, Malcolm, Randy and Craig taught her to play like a boy — and since she was 5-11 by the time she was 12, she did just that.
“My skills had to catch up, but I always had a competitive nature,” Donnelly said.
Said her oldest sister, Carolyn Gause, “she excelled over all of them. To win (their backyard games), you had to really do your best. The boys pushed all the girls, but she developed the most.”
By the time Donnelly reached junior high, Senter was hearing from Mullins’ football coach about a big girl who “beat all the boys every day in PE. She was a gym rat, tough; with that many brothers, you had to be,” he said.
Senter, 73, rode Donnelly to four region championships, and “every year, the team that beat us (in the playoffs) won the state championship,” he said. The coach has a wealth of stories about Donnelly, most involving some of his closest friends in coaching.
“We were playing the third round of the (Class 3A) playoffs against Cheraw and (coach) John Hutchinson,” he said. “They’re undefeated, and we have Daphne, another good player and three kids name Moe.
“So we throw it in to her and she brings it up against the press, then goes and scores. We beat Cheraw 39-37 and Daphne had 35. Afterward, Hutch says, ‘We’ve never beaten you and as long as you’ve got her, we never will.’”
John Timms, Manning’s coach, lost 12 in a row to Donnelly-led Mullins teams. He told her after her final game, “Honey, send me an invitation to your graduation, because I want to see you walk across that stage” and out of his life.
Getting college coaches to visit Mullins then, though, was a challenge. Among those who showed up was Hatchell, then building a small-school powerhouse in the shadows of bigger programs.
“Sylvia said, ‘I want (Donnelly) so bad,’” Senter said, laughing. “I’d have Daphne in a class, and I’d see Sylvia standing outside the door.” Donnelly also liked Hatchell, “plus I was a homebody,” and Francis Marion was 30 miles from Mullins.
Hatchell, who “wore out four cars” recruiting for Francis Marion, said there was one scary moment during her pursuit of Donnelly. “I was watching a game — I saw every game she played — and (USC coach) Pam Parsons walked in,” Hatchell said.
“(Parsons) left at halftime, and I thought, either she’s seen enough, or she doesn’t think (Donnelly) is good enough. When (USC) backed off her, I was so happy.”
At Francis Marion, Donnelly was an instant success, averaging 17.3 points and 11 rebounds as a freshman. But though Hatchell now introduces Donnelly to her UNC teams as “one of the greatest who ever played for me,” the coach at first would not let the big girl play until she shed some pounds.
“I sat her out until she got that under control,” Hatchell said, laughing. “I remember her going to the training room in her underwear, trying to make weight. Then she got in shape and was MVP of the national championship team.”
That 1981-82 season, Donnelly said, the Patriots started slowly, but “as we progressed, we started winning,” finishing 27-7 and defeating College of Charleston for the AIAW title. “We had such unity, all got along well,” she said. “We felt, ‘This is our year.’”
Perhaps because of that confidence, her memories of 1981-82 are not as emotional as of the following season’s disappointment. Although one game in 1982-83 stands out — for Donnelly and Hatchell, and especially for N.C. State coach Kay Yow.
A year earlier, Francis Marion was routed by the Wolfpack. “That night they beat us by 30, and they were laughing at us,” Donnelly said. “Me and Lynette (Mickle) and Melanie (McCloud) made a pact: Next year, we’re going to beat them.”
Behind 36 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals from Donnelly, the Patriots did, winning 85-81.
“It was a time when players with her abilities didn’t all go to Division I. She could’ve played anywhere,” said Michael Hawkins, then a Francis Marion student and now the school’s sports information director.
“That game,” Donnelly said, “made us believe we could beat anyone.”
Hatchell, with a national title at North Carolina, believes they could have, too.
“Those Francis Marion teams would be able to play in the ACC, no doubt,” she said. “We beat South Carolina, Clemson, N.C. State, all of them. After a while, we couldn’t get anyone to play us.”
With women’s college basketball now elevating its profile every year, such small-college success stories seem long ago. But they remember in Mullins, where Donnelly Street, named in Daphne’s honor, is not far from the recreation center that she haunted as a youth.
“I’ll go down (from Atlanta to Mullins) in December” for a niece’s wedding, Donnelly said. That week, she will also see a game in Myrtle Beach, as Hatchell’s guest, between UNC and Illinois.
Chances are, too, the player and the coach will recall that long-ago night in Kentucky. “We still talk about it,” Donnelly said. Two women who still hate to lose.
Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.