A special thanks to Dave Cox and Patrick Leary for their help in researching this story.
Five years after the passage of Title IX, Seattle University started a women's basketball program, with the hope of building it to see success similar to that enjoyed by the men's basketball team in the previous 25 years. Cathy Benedetto, a local legend as a player and high school coach, was brought in to lead the way, and she came to Seattle U with innovative ideas.
One of those ideas was to set up an exhibition game between her team and the national team of the Soviet Union, which was scheduling a tour of the United States to prepare for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Using connections she established as a player for the United States national team at the 1967 World University Games and Pan-American Games, she successfully put everything together, including convincing athletic director Ed O'Brien to allow her squad to face the USSR.
On December 6, 1979, the Seattle University women's basketball team made history. On that night almost 33 years ago, the women took on the Soviet Union national women's basketball team in the Kingdome, at the time setting the record for the highest attended women's basketball game in Washington state history.
Seattle U and the city of Seattle took significant steps to publicize the game. The night before the women's basketball game, the Seattle Supersonics, the defending NBA champions, hosted the Utah Jazz at the Kingdome, and the Seattle U women's basketball team was introduced to the crowd at halftime of that contest.
Among the then-record crowd estimated at 7,200 was Washington governor Dixy Lee Ray. At the time, that represented the biggest crowd the Russians had drawn on their American tour. The game was being held at the Kingdome because the Seattle Center Coliseum was undergoing renovations at the time.
The Soviet Union team had a little trouble getting used to the unusual shooting background at the Kingdome, missing its first few field goal attempts as Seattle U took an early 4-0 lead. However, once the Soviets adjusted to the background, they showed why they were considered the best women's basketball team in the world, going on to defeat Seattle U, 135-45.
Seven different Soviets scored 18 points in the contest, including seven-footer Uljana Semenova, who only played a few minutes of each half. C.J. Sealey led the SU women with 15 points, including 11 free throws.
Semenova, the Soviet star who dwarfed almost anyone she came across at the time, was the first non-American woman inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. She was regarded as the best women's basketball player of the 70's and 80's, and belonged to the inaugural class of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999.
When the seven-footer was not on the court, the Soviet Union still enjoyed a significant height advantage over Seattle U, with players at 6-5, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1, and 6-0. Seattle U had two players listed at 6-2 (April Lewallen and Debbie Henderson), with Sue Turina coming in at six-foot tall, at least a full foot shorter than Semenova, making for a memorable photo of the opening tip.
A month after the game, The Spectator, Seattle University's student newspaper which was on winter break at the time of the contest, ran a full-page summary of the game that showed pictures of a significant crowd watching the noticeably taller Soviets battle the Chieftains. The page bore the headline "Dome Diplomacy."
The Soviet Union squad would go on to win the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics, while Seattle U advanced to the AIAW playoffs for the third straight year, defeating Oregon State and Eastern Washington before losing to Oregon in the regional finals in front of 4,200 fans, the largest crowd to watch a Region IX tournament championship.
The women's basketball program had succeeded in gaining much-needed publicity as it continued to rise within the Seattle U athletic department. That game against the Soviet Union is definitely one of the benchmarks in the 35-year history of women's basketball at Seattle University.