The Thundering Word: Herd history puts Pelphrey among SoCon greats


HUNTINGTON – It’s been three decades since Karen Pelphrey starred as Marshall women’s basketball ushered in the NCAA and Southern Conference eras with the then-Lady Herd.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s been 30 years, really,” Pelphrey said. “It is hard to believe.”

What also was hard for her to believe was a voicemail she received at one of the two schools where Pelphrey is a special education teacher in Sedona, Ariz. The message was from Southern Conference Commissioner John Iamarino.

“The man left a message, said he hoped this was the Karen Pelphrey that played basketball at Marshall,” Pelphrey recounted by phone Sunday from Sedona. “I called him back, and he said, ‘Congratulations, you’ve been selected for the Southern Conference Hall of Fame Class of 2016,’ and we chatted for a while on the phone.

“I had no idea the Southern Conference even had a Hall of Fame. So, it was great news and yes, I was surprised and I was honored. And I’ve had a bad virus and wasn’t feeling well that day, and when I heard that it just made me feel a lot better. It was just a great feeling to know that what you accomplished is special.

“And he told me the names of some of the others and it’s an honor just be mentioned in the same sentence with them … Steph Curry, he’s my favorite basketball player. I can’t imagine going into a Hall of Fame with him. For my name to even be mentioned with his, it’s amazing.”

Curry, the NBA star from Davidson, only adds to the famous names Pelphrey has joined among past inductees … like Arnold Palmer, Sam Huff, Jerry West, Dick Groat, Lefty Driesell, Choo-Choo Justice, Frank Selvy, “Hot Rod” Hundley, Adrian Peterson and Gen. Robert Neyland.

Iamarino told Pelphrey she would be presented with a plaque and a ring … one problem there.

“I didn’t know my ring size,” Pelphrey said. “So, I called my Mom back in Kentucky. We wear the same size.”

Carol Pelphrey was in Walmart in Paintsville, and answered her cellphone … and went to the jewelry counter to get measured … size 7 1/2, it turns out.

“Karen’s very, very excited about this,” her mother said.

That’s as it should be for a 1992 Marshall Athletic Hall of Fame inductee.

Pelphrey, the first Marshall selection for the SoCon Hall, was honored for her final three Herd seasons (1983-84 through ’85-86). The conference, which dates to 1921, didn’t establish women’s basketball as a league sport until ’83-84, so when the conference announced her selection, Pelphrey was credited with 2,163 points.

However, the 6-foot-1 Paintsville, Ky., native scored a Marshall-record – man or woman – 2,746 points in four seasons. She’s the only Herd player – male or female – to post three 700-point seasons in a career. Pelphrey has nine of the top 15 scoring games in MU women’s history – she scored 20 points or more 79 times — and her 48 against Kentucky State in February 1984 remains the MU standard.

And while she shot .505 from the field and .784 from the free throw line in a Lady Herd uniform and was an American Women’s Sports Federation All-America pick three times (first team as a senior; second team the previous two years) and the 1985-86 SC Player of the Year, she recalls more about her college days than numbers and honors.

“Yes, I am that type of person,” Pelphrey said when asked if she is one to reflect on those glory days. “I think often of Marshall, when we played, my time there, my teammates. I loved going to school there. I can’t imagine having gone any other place.

“My teammates and I, we were all very close. We had a great coach (Judy Southard). I had a great four years there. I can’t tell you one negative thing about my time at Marshall. I follow them the best I can, football and basketball, watch when they’re on TV out here.

“Marshall is still a very special place to me.”

Pelphrey scored 5,283 points in her combined careers at Johnson Central High School – where she’s also enshrined in the school’s Hall of Fame – and Marshall. Her Lady Herd No. 12 joins Kristina Behnfeldt’s No. 42 as the only women’s basketball retired numbers on the Henderson Center wall.

These days, Pelphrey teaches reading, writing and math to the learning disabled, grades K through 8, at Mountain View Preparatory School and Oak Creek School in the Sedona area. She has been a teacher since her days at Marshall, where she majored in physical education.

Pelphrey’s career has taken her through Louisa, Prestonsburg and Lexington in her home state, then to Sarasota, Fla., where she spent about 13 years in the classroom. It’s been three years in Sedona, where she said she takes great advantage of the rugged and gorgeous surroundings to maintain the kind of physical activity she enjoyed as a basketball player.

“I’ve stayed in good shape,” Pelphrey said. “I’m an avid mountain biker, and a hiker. I’m in good health. I’ve maintained good habits and stayed in shape.”

There was a time when Pelphrey was headed down a different track after her Marshall career.

The NWBA – National Women’s Basketball Association – beckoned, promising player salaries of $10,000 to $18,000 a season, with a $2,000 bonus to college graduates.

The eight-team league planned to open Nov. 1, 1986 after a June 4 draft, but …

“There were people trying to start a women’s league, the NWBA,” Pelphrey recalled, “and I was drafted in the second round (by the Richmond-based Virginia Express). I ended up going to Knoxville (after a trade with the Tennessee Tiger Cats). I was there about three months.

“The schedule was supposed to start and then the men who backed the league decided to shut it down. We never played a game, never got paid. My mom and dad had rented an apartment for me in Knoxville, bought furniture, spent a lot of money … We traveled around and played a bunch of scrimmages. It didn’t happen. So, I came back to Marshall then and did my student teaching.”

Pelphrey said she follows women’s college hoops and the WNBA now, regularly watching the Phoenix Mercury and star post player Brittney Griner. She admires the quality of play at the college and pro level, but the player known for her perimeter marksmanship — although she had 891 Herd career rebounds, too – said it’s very different from the game she played back in the mid-80s.

“I think it’s fun to watch, and there are some really talented players,” said Pelphrey, who has hiked the Grand Canyon. “The game is faster and the players are physically bigger than when we played. The size they are now, I figure I’d have to be a point guard.

“But it’s exciting, and it’s all come a long way.”

You could say the same of Pelphrey, with another Hall of Fame in her hoops history.

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