Nancy Isenhour, second from left in the front row, and the High Point men's basketball teammates in 1945. (Courtesy Stanly County Museum)

WOMEN'S WEDNESDAY | High Point pioneer scored historic first playing on men's team

In commemoration of Women's History Month, ASN is dedicating Wednesdays in March to the heroes of women's history. Today: Nancy Isenhour and High Point's "Panther Girl."

A LINE FROM THE FAMOUS Irving Berlin song in the 1946 musical "Annie Get Your Gun" sets up the climactic sharpshooting contest between Annie Oakley and Frank Butler.

"Anything you can do I can do better; I can do anything better than you."

It certainly applied to a basketball sharpshooter at High Point (N.C.) College in 1944.

One day that spring, Nancy Isenhour was in the gym and challenged to a game of 21 by a player from a men’s basketball team at another school. She made 17 shots without a miss and won according to Stanly County Museum's Facebook page.

Virgil Yow, coach of the Panthers, told Isenhour she should try out for his team, depleted by service in World War II.

She did and on Nov. 30, 1944, in the sports moment judged the greatest in school history, the senior became the first woman to play on a men's college basketball team. Isenhour played in all but one game that season, including three starts.

In his 1975 book "No Easy Task — The First Fifty Years of High Point College," William R. Locke told a slightly different version.

A freshman with more self-confidence than ability announced to Yow that he was going to make the team. The youth kept running his mouth until Yow said, "We've got a girl here who could outplay you. She can shoot better, or do anything else, better than you can."

The freshman demanded: "Get her out here and see who can shoot better."

Yow found Isenhour in the dining hall and invited her to practice. She outshot everyone on the team except for one, and the freshman quit the team after two days.

Either way, as Yow told an Associated Press reporter in 1945, Isenhour could shoot.

"She has more natural ability than most boys you see in high school and she can pass with the best of the boys I have right now,” he said. “The boys laughed when I told them I was going to ask her to come out for basketball, but they didn’t laugh after the first day.”

Isenhour, who often played with a ribbon and white flower in her hair, earned the nickname "Panther Girl" from the headline on a 1944 profile of her in Collier's Magazine.

"As I remember, she just wanted to play," Harry Matthews, manager of the team, said in 1995. "I don't know that we gave her anything special. She just tried to be one of the boys."

"I don't remember any dissension on the part of the team," added Samuel Mackie, one of her teammates that season. "She was a very gifted athlete and could play."

But Yow said the team didn't want her under the basket. Why?

"If she got under the basket, she might get hurt," Mackie said. "That was what we were concerned about."

High Point finished with a 6-4 record in the North State Conference, 10-17 overall, and two of Isenhour's teammates were selected all-conference team.

Nearly 30 years later, Cyndy Meserve played for Pratt Institute of New York in a 1974 NCAA men's basketball game against Baruch College. Despite claims to the contrary, the Associated Press reported she was not the first woman to play on a men's team.

The story also explained why Isenhour played in all but one game: "Officials of the University of North Carolina thought letting a woman play went against tradition, so she sat that game out."

Like Isenhour, the Yows didn't sit out many games either.

Remarkably, three daughters of Yow's cousin Hilton went on to coach woman's college basketball — Kay Yow, Debbie Yow and Susan Yow. A legend in her own right, Kay Yow coached N.C. State and the U.S. Olympic women's teams.

Virgil Yow, who died in 1984, became one of the best women's basketball coaches in the country, posting a 226-56 record in eight seasons. His three AAU national championship teams had a combined of record 95-7.

"He saw people as people," Yow's daughter Judi Bludworth said in 2014, "not as genders."

Contributing: Kenzie Stanford

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