Thursday, September 20, 2012

Recollections of Ticha and a magical career

I didn't see Lieberman, Donovan or Nissen play the game.

But I saw Ticha. Old Dominion's No. 21 was a show you didn't want to miss at the Field House. Blink and her sleight-of-hand with the basketball might escape you. She made the  no-look routine and did such amazing stunts with the ball that I'd often turn to my Times-Dispatch buddy Vic Dorr and ask, "How did she do that?"

Ticha Penicheiro -- who retired on Wednesday after a stellar, 15-year professional career -- rarely disappointed

The Lady Monarchs won 119 games during her four years and lost 14. During her sophomore, junior and senior seasons, they lost eight games.

They beat a No.1-ranked Georgia team and a top-ranked Stanford team. They beat Tennessee and Texas Tech and Virginia and Rutgers and Purdue and LSU and Louisville and Vanderbilt and Duke. Texas coach Jody Conradt once had to call two timeouts within a minute because Ticha flustered her defense so thoroughly.

During the Ticha years, ODU didn't just win the CAA, the Lady Monarchs chewed it into mincemeat. Ticha towered over opposing point guards, turning easy thefts into fast-break points. Winning was never in doubt.

Those were the days if you wore the slate blue and white.

Ticha yearned for a championship. It escaped her at ODU by nine points in the NCAA 1997 title game. She finally got one for those other Monarchs, the ones with Sacramento in front of their name, in 2005.

I was lucky enough to visit her hometown, Figueira da Foz, Portugal, a place where the view is reminiscent of California's Pacific Highway, where olives trees are plentiful, where glitzy casinos line the streets and where ODU assistant coach Allison Greene joked she found the best souvenir of all: a 14-year-old kid named Ticha with a gift for the game.

Back when the days when newspapers spent money, I traveled with the Lady Monarchs to Europe -- Paris first and then Portugal, Ticha's favorite spot on Earth, she said. Deplaning in Lisbon, she didn't understand who the bright lights were for.

"What big soccer star is here?" she wondered with her typical giddy enthusiasm.

The cameras were on her.

Ticha never met a microphone she didn't like. While her buds Clarisse Machanguana and Mery Andrade shied away from the spotlight despite being eloquent speakers, Ticha basked in it, quipping one-liners and speaking beyond the traditional cliche. Ticha never once uttered sentences such as, "I need to step up. I need to focus."

"This will be our final exam," she said prior to Tennessee visiting Norfolk. Wendy Larry shot her a rolled-eyes look. "OK, midterm," Ticha shrugged.

In that one, ODU down by 10 at the half, rallied to win against the Lady Vols -- a memorable night for anybody wedged inside the Field House. Hard to forget Ticha's career-high of 25 points to go with 9 assists, 6 rebounds and 5 steals. When I asked Pat Summitt for her Field House memory when ODU played its last game there, she picked out that night.

"We lost 83-72," Summitt recalled at the time. "Obviously, I have vivid memories of what went on at the court, but I remember being in the dressing room. The reason I remember that is it helped us refocus to win the national championship. When I think about Tennessee-Old Dominion at that Field House, that's what stands out."

ODU fans would love to erase the second part of that Summitt recollection, the nine-point loss in Cincinnati.

Ticha was brutally honest when recalling it as perhaps the most painful game of her career. ODU had come into Riverfront Coliseum game winners of 33 straight. Not winning it all never entered the Lady Monarchs' minds. I asked Ticha at precisely what moment she realized there would be no national title for ODU.

"They brought in Milligan," she said, reliving it in her head.

Tennessee was at the free-throw line in the waning seconds of the loss. Laurie Milligan had been too injured to play, but Pat Summitt inserted her into the lineup so her name would appear in the box score.

"She could barely walk," Ticha recalled.

Writers aren't supposed to root. Inside that night I did -- for Ticha, for ODU to get what seemed as if it should belong to them rather than being another for the Lady Vols trophy case.

I followed Ticha's career, sat next to her on the flight to Newark, where I watched up close as she got drafted second overall by the Sacramento Monarchs in 1998. How I wanted her to go to the Mystics, so she'd be a mere three-hour drive away. She was a writer's dream, not just for her style of play but for her wittiness and candor and humbleness that distinguished her throughout a decorated professional career.

I remember her first game as a pro. I sat courtside in Sacramento when she got her first WNBA assist. She's had 2,596 since  -- more than any other player.

She's 38 now, ready to call it a career. It's been a great one.

She used to say she'd play ball as a kid in Figueira da Foz until the moon replaced the sun.

I know she'll always be playing, whether it's on a court or in her heart.

It's been our pleasure, Ticha.


  1. Ticha was a joy to all that saw her play. Does she have any future plans about possibly being involvement with ODU Lady Monarchs, even if its only on the recruiting front?

  2. correction...

    Ticha was a joy to all that saw her play. Does she have any future plans about possibly being involved with ODU Lady Monarchs, even if its only on the recruiting front?