Sunday, April 27, 2014

Celebrating Ticha's big night at the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame

Ticha Penicheiro defines it this way. Some people have talent singing; others can draw.

"I could pass the ball," she told an appreciative audience in Portsmouth on Saturday night who came to see Ticha inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.

At 39 years old, she looked smashing in a dazzling black dress, rose corsage adorning her right wrist and glittering heels. Was it really nearly 17 years ago that she and the Old Dominion Lady Monarchs created magic of their own by putting together together a run that took them to the NCAA title game in Cincinnati? Number 21 with the bangs made routine blowouts memorable over her four years with a flair and showmanship that no one has matched on the court since.

Since then, Ticha became a WNBA legend -- she retired after a 15-year career that saw her become the all-time assists leader in the league, an All-Decade Team honoree in 2006, a four-time all-star and champion. Her Sacramento Monarchs team won the WNBA title in 2005.

These days playing basketball is behind her. She resides half the year in Gaithersburg, Md., (she prefers her warmer home in Miami), where she is a sports agent to other budding stars -- Maryland's Allyssa Thomas, Vanderbilt's Christina Foggie and Penn State's Maggie Lucas among them. She doesn't miss playing.

"I think I retired at the right time. But I sometimes obsess about it still, watching all the games that I can, men and women," she said. "I'm looking at this as a job for life, though."

She's the kind of agent she would have enjoyed having. In addition to what she did in this country, Ticha had a brilliant international career -- stops included Poland, Russia, France, Czechoslovakia, Italy -- and she recalls, at times, being disappointed when she needed the type of support only a dedicated agent can provide. If problems would arise, she couldn't always get an immediate phone call back. Become her client and she will respond to your issue today, she says.

"I might not get a lot of sleep, but I call back the same day," she said.

Shonda DeBerry, Hamchetou Maiga, Wendy Larry, Ticha, Felecia Allen and Allison Greene.

Supporters in attendance on Saturday included former ODU coach Wendy Larry and assistant Allison Greene along with Shonda DeBerry, Hamchetou Maiga, Felecia Allen, Karen Barefoot, Jim Jarrett, Debbie White and Wood Selig.

It was Greene who "discovered" Ticha as a 16-year-old at the European championships. The mention of America made Ticha eager to get started -- this was, after all, the place where Magic and Michael played. Greene told Ticha she'd have to get a little older, and when Ticha was college age, Greene called back.

"Do you remember me," she asked.

Of course, Ticha remembered. "You're the person who's going to bring me to America," she said. "That's the day my life changed."

Larry and Greene flew to Portugal to meet her and a couple of friends, too. Back in Norfolk, Ticha's recruiting visit included a trip to the beach and a seafood meal. When Ticha asked, "Where do I sign?" Larry handed her her grandmother's pen.

Those friends, Mery Andrade and Clarisse Machanguana, signed too, and oh, what a team those Lady Monarchs were. The CAA was never a contest; they handed Stanford their only two losses of the 1996-97 season and gave Larry her only win over Pat Summitt in front of a thundering Field Hosue crowd. Perhaps they were good enough to give these UConn Huskies a challenge?

"We'd give 'em a game," Ticha said. "They have size, and Breanna Stewart would pose a challenge, but I think Mery could handle her."

As a kid who was given a basketball as a 5-year-old, Ticha dreamed of an NBA career, and she joked on Saturday that had she been able to accomplish that, she'd be sitting on the beach somewhere in retirement given the disparity between WNBA and NBA salaries. She's grateful, she said, that "Young women don't have to aspire to be like Magic or Michael anymore."

Nope. Instead they can aspire to be like Ticha -- Hall-of-Famer.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Suffolk's Sugar, Sugar: Georgetown star, WNBA player and now, author

The book is called "A Bitter Sweet Life," -- fitting for Ta'Shauna Rodgers, known to the women's basketball world as Sugar.

Run into Suffolk, Va.'s own around town, and she might be signing autographs for little girls, figuring a way to donate more shoes to the kids at the local rec center or training for a professional career that, frankly, she never dreamed of back when. The Georgetown graduate, a guard who is also the Hoyas' all-time leading scorer and a first-team All-Big East all four years, was drafted by the Minnesota Lynx in the second round. A few weeks ago, the Hoyas most decorated player was traded to the New York Liberty; today Rodgers leaves Suffolk for training camp in NYC.

"Get to play in Madison Square Garden," she says.


So what's the bitter part in a memoir that the English major penned, which will be released near the end of the summer?

Examine the cover, created by friend Larry Jones. The kid with the Sugar headband is all smiles twirling a basketball on her left index finger.

But the number she wears is 14 -- representative of July 14, 2005 -- the day she lost her mother, Barbara Mae to lupus. Sugar was 14 years old at the time; she was picked 14th in the draft and she wore 14 in high school. She hasn't talked publicly about the period surrounding her mother's death before, nor much about the dad who wasn't around enough and died with dementia her senior year of college.`

The details are in the book. A preview:

On her mom: "I had to wash her, clean her, wash her bedspread, lift her from one bed to the next. . . ."

On her dad who she saw right before he died: "He always knew who I was, which was weird because we never actually spent that much time together."

When the family home was condemned -- and yes, there was a drug bust there once, Sugar bounced around from place to place. She didn't attend class regularly at King's Fork High, even sold marijuana to get by. "I had food on the table and clothes on my back, so I didn't care," she says.

The book cover depicts a kid in the background being hauled off by police, a site Sugar grew up with on the east side of Suffolk. A drug syringe lies on the ground, and a basketball hoop, two tires holding it down, stands upright. That's where she played on 2nd Avenue, net missing, wooden backboard.

Sugar didn't realize basketball could be her ticket to a better life. She golfed, and she was good, part of a Tiger Woods youth team. But golfing was something she did with her mom.

"When she passed, I stopped," she says.

Her brother and sister were support, reminding her that she was meant to do something positive with her life. But the cover of the book shows a pile of trash overflowing in a can. On top is a letter from Georgetown, one Sugar tossed initially.

"I didn't think I was going to go to college," she says. "I threw it away. I put all the college letters in the trash. I thought I was going to go in the army."

She played AAU ball for Boo Williams and he pushed college. She developed a bond with his sister, Teri Williams-Flournoy, who, she says talked, language that she could understand when she recruited her at Georgetown. (Williams-Flournoy left to coach Auburn in 2012.)

Life at Georgetown didn't present the same challenges as the streets of Suffolk, but it was far from easy. "My freshman year I was barely passing," Sugar says. "It's a hard school. I had to ask for help, and I was scared, because I had never asked people to help me. I needed tutors for every class. But then I realized it's not a bad thing to ask for help."

She wants to see more people emerge from tough situations. She's active at King's Fork middle and high schools and is a regular at the Suffolk Rec Center on 6th Street (her Lynx team organized a shoe drive benefiting the kids there).

"I tell kids there is a way out. You have to stick with it and believe. No matter what people say -- some people said I'd never make it out of high school -- but I did. So no matter what people say, you can do it."

As a pro, Sugar doesn't live a luxury life. She doesn't own a car or her own house. The stunning watch on her right wrist and the gleaming bracelet on her left are two of her only frills, along with some extra athletic shoes that are her weakness.

"I don't spend much," she says.

The cover of the book could be mistaken for a kids book. Make no mistake. This is an adult story, a candid journey of overcoming the odds, but Sugar wants young people to see it, relate to it, read it and be inspired. She'd like it to be a movie someday.

"I want to be about giving back and reaching out to the kids. I want to motivate and let them know not to let anybody stop them, no matter what's going on at home. They can make it."

Like she did.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

JMU's Burkholder, Brooks, HU's Tate-DeFreitas highlight all-LadySwish team

Player of the Year

Kirby Burkholder, JMU

It was the run-up to the 2011-12 season, and JMU coach Kenny Brooks was talking about which Dukes would fill the considerable offensive void created by the departure of Dawn Evans. He ticked off two or three names, then added, "There's also Kirby Burkholder. She's really improved a lot."

At the time, we admired Brooks for finding a way to mention all of his players in the preseason preview. We just weren't sure how seriously to take this. Burkholder? The one who scored 31 points her entire freshman year? Sure she's gotten better - how could she not? But you honestly want us to believe this kid's going to replace Dawn Evans?

Well, this is why JMU pays Brooks all that money. For while no one can truly replace a player as uniquely gifted as Evans, Burkholder gradually carved out her own distinct Dukes legend. Burkholder's brilliance was rooted in her remarkable ability to dramatically improve each year she was on campus. The 6-foot forward went from her 31-point freshman season to a third-team All-Colonial Athletic Association pick. Her junior year, she was first-team All-CAA. And in 2013-14, Burkholder earned conference player of the year honors while spearheading JMU's Shermanesque run through the CAA. She then notched 28 points and 18 rebounds as the Dukes knocked off Gonzaga to bag the program's first NCAA tournament win since 1991.

Her production - Burkholder led the Dukes in points, rebounds, steals and minutes played - and leadership skills make her a clear choice as the LadySwish Player of the Year.

It's also made us realize we ought to pay much more attention to who Brooks tells us about this preseason.

First Team

Kirby Burkholder, Sr., JMU
   - CAA Player of the Year. Averaged team-leading 18.6 ppg, 8.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals. Shot 89.3 percent from the free-throw line and made her last 30 FTs as a collegian.

Alyssa Bennett, Sr. Hampton
   - Two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year and the most outstanding player at the 2014 MEAC Tournament. Averaged 17.9 points and 9.4 rebounds.

Uju Ugoka, Sr., Virginia Tech
   - Set program records with 16 double-doubles and 213 field goals. Led Tech in scoring (18.4 ppg) and rebounding (9.6 rpg). Earned second-team All-ACC honors and was also named to the league's All-Academic team.

Shae Kelley, Sr., Old Dominion
   - Became just the fifth Lady Monarch to scored 1,000 points in her first two seasons at ODU. Averaged team-leading totals of 17.8 points and 9.7 rebounds and also paced ODU in blocked shots and steals . A first-team All-Conference USA selection.

Robyn Parks, VCU
   - Led the Atlantic 10 in scoring (21.5 ppg) for the second straight year and ended her career ranked in the Top 10 of the program's all-time lists in points (sixth), free throws (third), rebounding (seventh), steals (10th), double-doubles (fifth) and games played (second). A first-team All-Atlantic 10 pick.

Second Team

Nicole Hamilton, Hampton: Fabulous shot blocker and a first-team all-MEAC selection who ends her career with 1,158 points.

Nikki Newman, James Madison: The two-time CAA Defensive Player of the Year has the amazing ability to impact every possession on both ends of the floor.

Rachel Gordon, Norfolk State: The MEAC's top rebounder was NSU's first conference first-teamer since the 2001-02 season.

Ashley Rininger, Liberty: First-team all Big South, the sophomore collected 16 double-doubles, ranking second in the conference in field-goal percentage.

Ataira Franklin, Virginia: Finishes her Cavalier career with 1,619 points, ranking her 11th.

Coach of the Year

Kenny Brooks, JMU

No, the Dukes didn't win an NCAA title. But in just about every other aspect - 29 victories, a long-awaited NCAA triumph, local stars leading the way, an all-alum staff, record-setting crowd on Senior Night - 2013-14 was about as close as it gets to a dream season.

Freshman of the Year

Malia Tate-DeFreitas, Hampton

Freshmen are typically seen but not heard from at Hampton. But coach David Six tossed the precocious Tate-DeFreitas into the middle of a veteran cast and gave her the green light. Tate-DeFreitas responded by being the leading scorer on yet another MEAC championship squad.

All-Freshman Team

Malia Tate-Defreitas, Hampton: The Pirates' offensive machine was fourth best in the MEAC at 18.1 ppg.

Marlena Tremba, William & Mary: The CAA Rookie of the Year scored in double figures 22 times, making 14 starts.

Olivia Healy, Richmond: Before suffering a season-ending knee injury vs. St. Louis, the 5-11 guard averaged 12.3 ppg and boasted a .419 FG percentage.

Isis Thorpe, VCU: Started 16 games and averaged 12.2 ppg with big nights against Ohio State (20 points) and St. Bonaventure (19 points).

Keira Robinson, VCU: Formidable point guard handed out 200 assists and averaged 11.4 ppg while starting all but one game.

Finally, there were a host of memorable games over the course of the 2013-14 season. Here are a few of our favorites:

Nov. 21

Longwood 67, Xavier 64:
The idea of the Lancers knocking off a Big East team, even a fuzzy-cheeked conference newcomer like Xavier, would have been far-fetched throughout most of Longwood's Division I history. But that was before the Lancers bagged what the school proudly proclaimed as the biggest win in program history. Daeisha Brown led the way with 26 points, six rebounds and five assists, and Heather Tobeck was the late-game heroine after splashing the go-ahead 3-pointer with 30 seconds left. "I knew it was good the moment it left her hand," Lancers coach Bill Reinson would say later.  Alas, the season went south for the Lancers after this, but as this game proved, the campaign wasn't without a few defining moments.

Nov. 30

William and Mary 96, UMass 88 (OT)
The Tribe's first victory of the season was truly a team effort as Jazmen Boone (24 points), Kyla Kerstetter (18), Marlena Tremba (15), Kaitlyn Mathieu (14) and Anna Kestler (12) all scored in double figures. But for us, the game's gold star belonged to freshman Latrice Hunter, who calmly sank two free throws with four seconds left to force overtime. Hunter had missed two free throws with one second left in the first half and was 0-for-3 when she stepped to the line at the end of regulation. For the game, the Tribe went 25 of 28 from the line, with Hunter accounting for the only misses. But when she absolutely, positively had to get it done, Hunter was money.

Dec. 7

Virginia Tech 72, Michigan State 66
A year earlier, the Hokies scored just 29 points the entire game in a 28-point loss to the Spartans, but a revamped Tech lit up the scoreboard (relatively speaking) in the rematch as Uju Ugoka, Vanessa Panousis, Hannah Young and Monet Tellier took turns piling up the points in a wild game that saw the Hokies get a big lead, lose it, get another big lead, lose it again, then fashion a 10-1 run to finally close the Spartans out. After this one, we were sure we were watching two NCAA tournament teams. Unfortunately, only Michigan State would qualify for the big show.

Jan. 4

VCU 71, Duquesne 68
Robyn Parks flat-out went off in the second half, scoring 22 of her 31 points and almost singlehandedly rallying the Rams (14-1) to their school-record 13th straight victory. To be fair, most of the victories during the streak came at the expense of rebuilding teams. So for many, this victory was the first true indication that these Rams were for real.

Jan. 11

Norfolk State 73, UMES 66
The Spartans hadn't won a true road game since the end of the 2011-12 season, so it was pleasantly surprising to see them march into Princess Anne, Md., and handle the Lady Hawks. Rae Corbo led the way with 20 points, and rebounding machine Rachel Gordon added 19 while snatching 16 boards. The Spartans wound up finishing MEAC play with a better record in other teams' buildings (5-3) than they had in their own (3-5).

Jan. 16

Liberty 77, Winthrop 70 (OT)
It would wind up being Winthrop's year in the Big South, but the Lady Flames had final say in this one, rallying from 15 down in the first half, then surviving a buzzer-beater to tie at the end of regulation to pull away in OT. Ashley Rininger (20 points, 14 rebounds), Reagan Miller (17 points, all after halftime) and Mickayla Sanders (17 points) scored 12 of Liberty's 15 points in the extra period.

Jan. 23

Virginia 86, Maryland 72
The 6th-ranked Terrapins came in winners of 14 straight but were run out of John Paul Jones Arena by the seemingly resurgent Cavaliers, who shot 50 percent from the field and got 24 points from Kelsey Wolfe and 19 apiece from Ataira Franklin and Faith Randolph. The fact that it was the final Virginia-Maryland showdown before the Terps depart for the Big Ten made the victory that much sweeter. Of course, the Cavs were unable to follow up on this success, while Maryland danced its way to the Final Four. But on this night, the Cavaliers looked like the real ACC heavyweights.

Jan. 23

High Point 72, Radford 63
Talk about being dialed in. Highlanders sophomore Ayana Avery sank eight 3-pointers, including all seven she launched in the second half to help Radford make a game of it. "My teammates were finding me, and once you make two or three, your confidence grows," Avery said. The game kicked off a four-game stretch when Avery hit 23 3-pointers and shot percent 56 percent from distance. For the season, Avery connected on a school-record 95 treys.

Feb. 1

Old Dominion 65, Marshall 52
Down by 10 with 3:50 remaining, ODU appeared headed for an embarrassing home loss to Conference USA's last-place team. But that's when the Lady Monarchs climbed off the deck with a fury, using voracious offensive rebounding, lockdown defense and an unlikely 3-pointer by Shae Kelley to force overtime. The ODU assault continued in the extra period, and what looked to be a certain defeat turned into a comfortable victory. The Lady Monarchs wound up scoring 27 of the game's final 31 points.

Feb. 11

Richmond 78, Fordham 77 (2OT)
The resiliency of the Spiders was on full display against the eventual Atlantic 10 tournament champions. Kristina King's jumper with 11 seconds left in regulation tied things at 61 and forced overtime. King's 3-pointer with 15 tics left in OT made it 71-71 and prompted another extra period. And finally, freshman Janelle Hubbard's jumper with seven seconds left was the game-winner. King and the precocious Hubbard each finished with 29 points for the Spiders, who proved that even with their injury-depleted roster they could compete with - and beat - the A-10's best.

Feb. 12

George Mason 101, UMass 73
The Patriots took out a season's worth of frustration on UMass, putting up NBA numbers and finishing with their first triple-digit score since 1993. Janaa Pickard (25 points), Taylor Brown (25) and Sandra Ngoie (23) led the way as their Patriots notched their first victory of 2014. Mason also topped UMass in the first round of the Atlantic 10 tournament.

March 15

Hampton 50, Coppin State 47
How do you win a game shooting just 26 percent? If you're Hampton, you do it by holding your opponent to 25 percent. The Lady Pirates followed this formula in the MEAC tournament final, once again relying on elite defense to bail them out and cement their fifth straight conference tournament crown. Hampton also got a huge effort from senior guard Nicole Hamilton, who struggled mightily in the Lady Pirates' first two tournament game but scored 20 points and orchestrated most of the key offensive plays down the stretch in the final. The victory was Hampton's 49th straight against MEAC opponents, the longest active such streak in Division I.

March 23

JMU 72, Gonzaga 63
We saved the best for last. Not only was this the Dukes' first NCAA tournament victory since 1991, but it was the first NCAA triumph by any Virginia D-I program since 2009. The Dukes won it with defense, holding Gonzaga's offense in check until unleashing their own weapons down the stretch. Meanwhile, Burkholder (28 points, 18 rebounds) conducted a clinic on how to be the best player on the floor despite making just 4 of 17 shots.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Hello, and now goodbye, to VCU's Stollings

Marlene, we hardly knew ye.

Marlene Stollings will be introduced as head women's basketball coach at the University of Minnesota this afternoon at a press conference. Seems like yesterday that we were writing the same sentence about Stollings taking over at VCU. Indeed, that was June 5, 2012, when Stollings joined the Rams, leaving Winthrop after one season.

We can't argue with her credentials as Stollings turned around a Winthrop team and most recently, VCU, which finished 11-19 her first season and 22-10 this year. VCU ended its season with a loss to Princeton in the WNIT. Given her surge of young talent, we were expecting a bigger and better Rams team next year. If that happens, Stollings will not be leading the way.

Of course, Stollings is free to work where she wants, and no doubt, the Big 10 is more attractive than the Atlantic 10. But seven freshmen and four sophomores were on her roster this season. We're guessing most of them came there to play for Stollings, embracing her uptempo style coined "Fury."
Now with her office furniture hardly having the chance to gather dust, Stollings is gone to the tune of a six-year contract and far harsher winters than she endured in Richmond.

Yet her kids remain, perhaps. We don't know if any will transfer, but if they do, they will be required to sit out a year due to NCAA eligibility rules. And that's our real problem with this situation.

Like it or not, the rules of corporate America are to look out for No. 1. Employers aren't sentimental these days; employees and yes, that means coaches, put their own needs first. Nobody says it, but it's truth. That can mean job hopping, or three jobs in four years as is the case with Stollings.

While that's the way it is, it's not the way it always was. That's among the reasons Old Dominion was so fortunate to have Wendy Larry and Virginia to have Debbie Ryan. These were women not looking to climb the corporate ladder. They were invested in their institutions; these were their schools.

We feel for the Rams or any student-athlete left behind in a coaching transition. When kids are recruited, they are brought into the fold and told they are part of a family. The rhetoric sounds nice, but truth be told, sports is business not family. And the real travesty is when Coach leaves for a better job, the kids have to pick up the pieces, whether that means playing for a coach who didn't recruit them, sitting the bench for the rest of their time or leaving for another program and missing out on a year of ball.

More so, VCU wasn't built yet. The Rams were a good work in progress, but they hadn't been built yet. Isn't there something to be said for staying somewhere and building a program before you move on?

We bid Stollings adieu and honestly wish her well. But admittedly, what happened here leaves us cold.