Undated (AP) _ After winning gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, U.S. women's basketball continued to gain in popularity last season, with significant increases in attendance and major gains in revenue.

Old Dominion, for example, which won its first NCAA championship, and the other Final Four participants each earned more than $7,000 in profits. Regional finalists gained more than $5,000 apiece and first-round participants took home nearly $2,000.

While those figures are still nowhere near the millions the NCAA men's tournament generates each season, they are an indicator of the sport's growth.

''We made money and we got expansion,'' said Nora Lynn Finch, whose committee runs the NCAA Division I tournament. ''You usually don't get one without the other.''

The field for this year's title chase will grow from 32 to 40 schools, including 18 conference champions and 22 at-large selections.

''It's good we finally got (expansion),'' said Linda Harper, coach of Northeast Louisiana, which lost to ODU in the national semifinals. ''There are a lot more quality teams out there and some will get a chance to qualify that might not have been able to otherwise.''

Attendance marks were set last season at the University of Iowa, where a crowd of more than 22,000 streamed into 15,200-seat Carver-Hawkeye arena to watch Coach Vivian Stringer's team play Big 10 front-runner Ohio State. Several weeks later the Buckeyes drew more than 9,000 people in a return match with Iowa.

Another season highlight occurred just before Christmas. West Virginia's 6- foot-7 Georgeann Wells became the first woman to complete a dunk shot in a college game. A week later she slammed home another effort and was soon made an honorary member of the University of Houston men's basketball team's Phi Slama Jama fraternity.

If last season provided material for the record books, the race for the 1986 NCAA title at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., next March may provide an even greater amount.

''There are at least 12 teams who could win it,'' said Linda Sharp, the Southern California coach. ''Right now, though, some of them are a little more experienced then the others.''

One with plenty of experience and an added incentive is Texas, which finished first in the Top Twenty for the second straight year and then was upset by Western Kentucky at the buzzer in the Mideast Regional semifinals.

Coach Jody Conradt still has trouble sleeping over the shocker that ruined the Longhorns' chance to advance to their own court for the NCAA finals.

Five starters, including all-American guard Kamie Ethridge, return along with all-American Annette Smith, who was red-shirted last year after suffering a leg injury at the close of the 1984 season.

Georgia, despite graduating all-American Janet Harris, should still be in the thick of the chase with the return of Olympian Teresa Edwards and the addition of freshman Katie Abrahamson.

Northeast Louisiana has its trio of Eun Jung Lee, Lisa Ingram and Channa Perry back with a little more experience.

Louisiana Tech lost super shooter Pam Gant, but gained one of the better freshmen in Nora Lewis to stay in the hunt. ''I think just being in the Top Ten all year was a major accomplishment,'' said Coach Leon Barmore, whose team failed to make the national finals for the first time in seven years. This season, with the departure of co-coach Sonja Hogg, he has sole control of the Lady Techsters.

Old Dominion lost two assets in Tracy Claxton and all-American Medina Dixon but still has enough talent to mount a challenge. ''It's going to take a while to find our chemistry. But we should be all right by the end of the year,'' said Monarch Coach Marianne Stanley.

Western Kentucky, which was the Cinderella participant in last season's finals, has all starters back for a chance to take Hilltopper fans on a nearby trip to Lexington.

Tennessee and Southern California, which played in the 1984 title game, should return to the chase this season. Out West it will be the final year of the Cheryl Miller era at USC.

''She'd like to go out back on top,'' said USC's Sharp of her three-time all-American. ''This year she's got more responsibility as a team captain, which she's never been before.''

Auburn is also expected to move up a level to Top Ten status and challenge in the rugged Southeastern Conference. ''Our forte is our defense. We have kids who are team oriented and that's helped us,'' said Tiger Coach Joe Ciampi.


A regional look at the upcoming season:

The Atlantic 10 and the Atlantic Coast are the two toughest conferences in the East, with each owning an automatic NCAA bid. Penn State, with all- American guard Suzie McConnell leading the way, should win the Atlantic 10.

St. Joseph's, which returned to national status last season, should be a contender with the Lady Lions, and West Virginia, Temple and Rutgers will also challenge. In the Atlantic Coast Conference, Virginia, North Carolina with Dawn Royster and North Carolina State seem to be the best of the league. Maryland might be ready to return to prominence.

Old Dominion and Western Kentucky will be challenging each other nationally and in the Sun Belt Conference, which has an automatic bid. Villanova, led by Shelly Pennefather, seems the favorite to take the NCAA bid for the Big East. La Salle, which had its best record under new coach Bill Speedy Morris, Holy Cross and St. Peter's will again tangle for the berth from the Metro Atlantic Conference.

The Southeastern Conference remains the toughest in America. Georgia, Tennessee and Auburn might be considered co-favorites for the automatic bid, but Louisiana State and Mississippi are close behind. Alabama, Vanderbilt and Kentucky could cause trouble. Middle Tennessee, which might be a sleeper, and Tennessee Tech will battle again for the Ohio Valley bid. Ohio State remains a slight favorite in the Big 10 with former Tennessee assistant Nancy Darsch replacing Tara VanDerveer, who moved to Stanford.

Iowa, however, is ready to make its big push with a chance to appear at home in the NCAA Mideast Regional next March. Western Michigan is the favorite in the Mid-American Conference.

South Carolina has the most experience in the Metro to be the favorite for an automatic. Memphis State is also a contender. The North Star doesn't have an automatic, but it has Notre Dame and freshman Heidi Bunek, which might be a combination good enough for an at-large bid. Florida A&M should be the favorite in the first year of operation for the New South Conference.

Texas continues to dominate the Southwest Conference with a streak over opponents to rival Halley's Comet. But Texas Tech, Houston and Arkansas have been getting better and might give the Longhorns a scare or two. Drake has Wanda Ford to appear to be a slight favorite in the Gateway. Southern Illinois, however, has the toughest schedule, which could be helpful down the stretch. Illinois State remains competitive.

Oklahoma is a narrow choice in the Big Eight with Kansas - alma mater of the Harlem Globetrotter's first woman player, Lynette Woodard - ready to return to contention. Missouri is also a good bet. Northeast Louisiana should beat the Southland for the automatic bid again.

The rough, tough Western Collegiate Athletic Association has dissolved. As a result, Southern California and UCLA are ahead of Stanford, Arizona State and Arizona for NCAA at-large bids in the new PacWest. Next year, the same group will become part of the Pac 10. That leaves the Pacific Coast as the strongest this season with perennial Western power Long Beach State the favorite over Nevada-Las Vegas.

Fullerton State, with new coach Maryalyce Jeremiah from Indiana, and Cal- Irvine might also challenge.

The Norpac, which will dissolve next summer, features a race between California and Oregon for the automatic bid. Idaho is still the class of the Mountain West.

Pepperdine is the favorite in the West Coast Athletic Conference, which is beginning women's championships.

Louisiana Tech is still the best of what is becoming a vanishing breed. Miami of Florida has a schedule strong enough to make the Hurricanes Top Ten material. New Orleans is an outside possibility for an at-large bid from this group.