Donna Murphy’s Sweet 16 starburst

March 8, 2017 FieldsColumn

The St. Elizabeth Healthcare/KHSAA Girls’ Sweet Sixteen tips off today at NKU’s BB&T Arena. This is the 56th girls’ state tournament, the 43nd since the KHSAA started sponsoring the event again in 1975. While everybody agrees that girls’ basketball has come a long way since then, it should be noted that the ’75 Sweet Sixteen featured one of the state’s all-time greatest players.

 BY MIKE FIELDS

Donna Murphy averaged 32 points, 22 rebounds as a junior, and 35 points, 20 rebounds, 6 assists as a senior at Newport High School.

Donna Murphy, who must be included in any conversation about the best girls’ high school basketball players in Kentucky history, became a legend despite having to wait to prove herself to a statewide audience.

Murphy’s first two years of high school predated the modern era of the Girls’ Sweet Sixteen, which kept her wondrous athletic skills from being widely appreciated. 

In her freshman and sophomore years at Newport, Murphy and her teammates played in the Northern Kentucky Athletic Conference, which was made up of schools in the 9th Region. There was a postseason conference tournament, but no KHSAA district, region or state tournaments.

That changed with the reintroduction of the Sweet Sixteen in 1975.

“I was excited about that,” Murphy recently recalled. “The state tournament was something to shoot for. I remember prior to that season, me and four seniors practiced all summer against five guys, trying to get ready. Those five fellas really helped us.”

Cindy Schlosser, who coached Murphy at Newport, knew her star was ready to shine.

“Donna was phenomenal. I didn’t have to coach her at all,” Schlosser said. “She grew up playing the game against boys. I remember her riding a bike to practice while dribbling a basketball. That’s the truth.

“She could do it all. She could break the press, shoot from anywhere, and her hang time was tremendous. Her skill level was way above any girls I’ve ever coached or ever seen. She was amazing.

“And she was a top-notch student, too.”

Murphy, who also played volleyball and softball, and had already set a state record in the high jump, was more than ready for her junior year of basketball. She averaged 32 points and 22 rebounds and led Newport to the state tournament. 

Her Sweet Sixteen debut at EKU was remarkable. The 5-foot-7 star had 42 points and 23 rebounds in a 58-42 victory over Russell.

Donna Murphy drives to the basket during the 1975 state tournament. (Courier-Journal photo)

In the quarterfinals against Butler, Murphy had a hot hand early and led Newport to a 20-4 lead. But she wound up getting into foul trouble, and Butler was able to eke out a 51-50 victory. Murphy finished with 25 points and 13 rebounds.

Butler went on to win the state title — a title Murphy thought her team might have won.

“It was very discouraging, very disappointing that we didn’t go further,” she said.

Two good things came out of the experience, however. Murphy won the Ted Sanford Award, and she made a lifelong friend in Valerie Owens, Butler’s star.

As a senior, Murphy averaged 35 points and 20 rebounds, but she had an inexperienced supporting cast and Newport didn’t make it back to the Sweet Sixteen.

Murphy did win the first Miss Basketball award in 1976, and went on to have a standout career at Morehead State, where she amassed 2,059 points and 1,442 rebounds. She was the OVC Player of the Year and OVC Athlete of the Year in 1980.

Donna Murphy

Personal honors weren’t what motivated Murphy, though. “I never thought about awards or points or any of that stuff,” she said. “I was just worried about my team winning.”

Now a professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, and the school’s Diversity Outreach Coordinator, Murphy has kept up with girls’ basketball over the years. (She even coached at Lexington Christian and Bryan Station for a while.)

“Overall, I think it’s definitely gotten better,” she said. “There was talent when I played; it just wasn’t on the same scale as it is now. And it wasn’t valued and supported like it is now.”

Murphy doesn’t think it’s right to compare players from different eras for several reasons: today’s girls get much better coaching; they play with a smaller, easier-to-handle ball; and they have the chance to play six, seven or even eight years of varsity ball, enabling them to shatter all kinds of records.

“It’s like comparing apples and oranges,” she said.

Maybe so, but anyone who saw Murphy play would say she would have been a star in any era.

“No doubt about that,” Schlosser said.

When Roy Bowling, who guided Laurel County to four state titles and is regarded as the most influential coach in the history of girls’ high school hoops in Kentucky, was asked to choose the best player he’s ever seen in the state, the first name he came up with was Donna Murphy.

“That’s very humbling, coming from him,” she said.

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