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'Our Lady of Victory' chronicles Immaculata's inspiring story

WEST CHESTER, Pa. -- The nuns wore high-tops and the
referees skirts. The fans dressed in tie-dye and the players shot
baskets in blue tunics, with hair ribbons to match.

It was the 1970s all over again inside the field house at West
Chester University, where filmmakers were working on "Our Lady of
Victory.''

The movie recounts the inspirational journey of the Mighty Macs
of tiny Immaculata College. The all-girls Catholic school outside
Philadelphia won the first national collegiate women's basketball
championship in 1972, then captured the title the next two years as
well.

"When people hear that the story is being made into a movie,
every single person says, 'It's about time,' '' said Cathy Rush, the
team's coach. "It should have been made long ago.''

Starring Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, Carla Gugino and David
Boreanaz, the movie focuses on Rush (Gugino), who was not much
older than her players when she led them to all three titles.

Rush, now 60 and semiretired, describes the film as part
"Sister Act,'' part "Hoosiers'' and part "A League of Their
Own.'' Maybe toss in "Rocky,'' the movie of the fictional boxer
who was perhaps Philadelphia's most famous underdog since, well,
the Mighty Macs.

Immaculata didn't even have a home court. The school's field
house had burned down, so the team practiced at area gyms and
played all its games on the road. Players sold toothbrushes to
raise money for their trip to the first championship -- held at
Illinois State -- but came up short and had to leave three teammates
behind.

The Macs entered the 16-team tournament as the 15th seed after
being routed by West Chester 70-38 in the regional final. After a
solid win over South Dakota State, they edged Indiana State by a
basket and stunned top-seeded Mississippi State College for Women
in the semifinals 46-43.

Then they avenged their earlier loss to West Chester, winning
52-48 for the first title bestowed by the Association of
Intercollegiate Athletics for Women. (The NCAA took over the
championship in 1982.)

It wasn't until three decades after the title, when author Julie
Byrne published the book "O God of Players: The Story of the
Immaculata Mighty Macs,'' that the movie concept gained momentum.

"It's a gem of a story,'' said Tim Chambers, the film's
director. "Even in Hollywood terms, when people first read the
script, people were like, 'How did you find this?' ''

Chambers, also a writer and producer, knew about the Macs from
growing up in the Philadelphia area. Officials at Immaculata fully
support his vision, though it's important to note the film is
"based'' on a true story, school spokeswoman Marie Moughan said.

Take the nuns in Converse high-tops. While it's true the Sisters
of the Immaculate Heart of Mary passionately cheered the Mighty
Macs, they probably did so in more traditional footwear.

"Tim took some liberties there. I don't think they would have
worn the high-top Chuck Taylors back then,'' Moughan said. "He is
being playful and fun, and we're OK with that.''

But the film, like the Mighty Macs, faces challenges. Though its
backers include former Philadelphia 76ers president Pat Croce, the
movie has a relatively small budget of $6.5 million and is still
looking for a distributor. Filmmakers hope to have it ready to go
next spring in time for Holy Week, which happens to overlap with
the NCAA basketball tournament.

Immaculata, though, will not be a part of March Madness. The
school fell off the basketball map with the passage of Title IX,
which allowed colleges to offer women sports scholarships --
something the small school could not afford.

Immaculata's financial hardships continued as enrollment
declined, and it ended up admitting men for the first time in 2005.
Now a university with an enrollment of about 900 undergraduates, it
has men's and women's Division III basketball teams. The school
hasn't won a basketball title since the glory days of the 1970s.

But its place in history is secure. The Macs marked many
milestones in women's college basketball, including the first game
at Madison Square Garden (vs. Queens College) and the first
nationally televised game (vs. Maryland), both in 1975. One of the
Macs' star players, Theresa Shank Grentz, and coach Rush are in the
Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.

Other players from Immaculata's heyday include Rene Muth
Portland, who became the longtime coach of the Penn State women's
squad, and Marianne Crawford Stanley, who won three championships
as coach at Old Dominion and later coached the WNBA's Washington
Mystics.

Many of the Macs have cameos in the movie, including Rush -- as
the bank teller who cashes the coach's first weekly paycheck, for
$19.50. Her then-husband, Ed Rush (played by Boreanaz), also has a
small part.

Now divorced, they were both on set for the championship game
scene in the West Chester gym. Cathy Rush said she looked at the
nuns in the stands, the fans in period clothing and the girls in
uniform, and the memories came flooding back.

"The public address announcer says, 'And now the Mighty Macs
take the floor!' '' Rush said. "I look at my ex-husband and we're
both crying. It just struck us both. I mean, it was an amazing
feeling because I actually felt as if I was back in the '70s and it
was all happening again.''