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Originally published October 21, 2011 at 8:02 PM | Page modified October 21, 2011 at 10:05 PM

Seattle U. coach Joan Bonvicini knows all about the "Mighty Macs"

"The Mighty Macs" is a movie about Immaculata University, the winner of the first three women's college basketball titles. In 1973, during Immaculata's second title run, it defeated Joan Bonvicini's Southern Connecticut State team.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Memories flowed like hot butter over popcorn.

Seattle University women's basketball coach Joan Bonvicini reverted back to college life, playing at Southern Connecticut State, when she nestled into her seat for a prescreening of "The Mighty Macs" last month at Pacific Place.

As Bonvicini dug into her tub of popcorn, she shared stories with Seattle U. assistant coach Kristen O'Neill, although some memories had the taste of burnt kernels.

The movie, which was released nationally Friday, is an inspirational tale of Hall of Fame coach Cathy Rush, who led Immaculata (Pa.) College to the first women's college basketball championship in 1972 (plus titles in 1973 and 1974, second-place finishes in 1975 and 1976 and a spot in the Final Four in 1977).

Bonvicini's Southern Connecticut State team faced Immaculata during Rush's second championship season, losing in the semifinals of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women tournament, the precursor to the women's NCAA tournament.

"I'm embarrassed because I get mad still," said Bonvicini, a former guard. "We were up 10 with like four minutes to go and we ended up losing at the buzzer. Marianne (Crawford Stanley) shot at the top of the key and missed and Theresa (Shank) Grentz tipped it in."

As the movie depicts, that loss Bonvicini experienced was an outcome necessary to help shape women's basketball today.

Weave through the candy-coated affirmations in the film and the poignant lesson is being committed to your dreams. Rush, who had no prior coaching experience, had graduated from nearby West Chester University less than two years before taking the Immaculata job in 1970. The team didn't have a court, uniforms, and actress Carla Gugino, who plays Rush, is handed a deflated basketball to further punctuate the lifeless program.

Cathy Rush had just married NBA official Ed Rush, but she didn't want to regret not following her one dream before starting a family. Bra-burning and feminism were beginning to take form, but it hadn't really hit suburban Pennsylvania, where Rush's story began.

Bonvicini is close to Rush and many of the players on the historic Immaculata team.

"There are so many messages there for us at Seattle U. about working hard, believing in what you do," Bonvicini said. "It's not the building or the place you play, it's the people."

"The Mighty Macs" isn't as artfully told as "Hoosiers," nor does it branch to tackle other issues such as homophobia in college sports, like the 2009 documentary "Training Rules." But "Mighty Macs" is a feel-good tale that positively highlights women.

"You got to see like where (Joan) started," O'Neill said of the movie's depiction of the struggles women faced playing basketball before Title IX. "You see the story instead of just hearing it, which is great. It'll help people appreciate how far we've come."

There's a grainy picture in Bonvicini's office of her playing in a kilt like the Mighty Macs in the movie. The SU coach regularly notes to players that there wasn't a three-point line in her day, that on trips players slept four to a room with double beds, and there weren't any scholarships.

Bonvicini worked in a metal-goods factory to pay her tuition.

Now there's per diem, television contracts, dunking and a professional league that has been in existence for 15 years.

Bonvicini said the West Coast was so far behind the East she was uncertain about beginning her coaching career in the West but took a job as an assistant at Cal Poly Pomona. She moved on to Long Beach State as an assistant coach before a successful run there as head coach. Then it was on to Arizona before coming to Seattle U.

Saturday, as she prepares to host a coaching clinic at Seattle U. with about 80 attendees, there are two Division I schools in the city and a pro team with two WNBA titles.

Just one example of the reach of the "Mighty Macs."

"These women were way ahead of their time," said Bonvicini, who led Long Beach State to the Final Four in 1987 and 1988. "To watch and be part of the entire thing from the beginning is really interesting."

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com

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