When junior college transfer LaToya Small was homesick last year, Penicheiro zeroed in on her like a sheepdog on a wandering lamb. "I'd want to stay in my room and mope, and Ticha would screw up her face into this pleading, childish look and say, 'Plllllleeeeeaaase come with us!' " says Small. "Everyone on the team knows that face is impossible to resist." So Small would soon find herself among all the other Lady Monarchs, trying on clothes at the mall, munching popcorn at the movies or doing synchronized hand movements to Portuguese nursery rhymes in the middle of the locker room. "Ticha takes care of you and keeps you involved, on and off the court," says Small. "But you know what's the best thing about her? With all the talent she has, you'd think she'd be conceited. But she's so modest. She doesn't gloat. If I were her, I would gloat."
To the contrary, Penicheiro is quick to point out her own deficiencies. For one, her English. She studied the language for seven years in school in Portugal, refined it at home by watching countless hours of The Simpsons and MacGyver with her brother, Paulo, and has further polished it during her three years in the States. But to Penicheiro it's still flawed. Not as it used to be, she assures you, when her H's were in the linguistic lost and found. "I used to say,' 'ello, welcome to Hold Dominion,' " she says. "Or, 'I'm 'ungry, let's go heat.' " Studying in her second language, Penicheiro was named to the Colonial Athletic Conference's All-Academic team last year, has made the dean's list four times in six semesters, has already earned one degree in communications and is working on another.
But as hard as she works academically, she remains, above all, a student of the game. "She's obsessed with basketball," says former Lady Monarchs teammate Clarisse Machanguana, who also played with Penicheiro on the Santarem club team in Portugal. "She videotapes and watches games all the time—men's, women's, boys', girls', it doesn't matter."
Penicheiro has learned much from her hours of viewing, but she insists that the things that really define her as a player—her ball handling and court vision—are gifts. "I don't know how I see who's open, but I do," she says. "I see mismatches forming, holes opening. And my ball handling is natural. You give some people a pencil, they can just draw."
Over the summer, while in Portugal for the quarterfinals of the European Championships, Penicheiro returned to the scruffy little playground in Figueira da Foz, the northwestern beach town where she grew up. "This is where it all began," she said expansively as she emerged from the car. She looked around and sighed. "City hall just doesn't keep this place up anymore," she said, noting the bent, netless rims and the cracking asphalt court, surrounded by dreary, five-story apartment buildings strung with drying laundry.
Even in its heyday 15 years ago, this little patch known as Traseiras (Backyard) wasn't much to look at. It was just a rectangle of sand then, but it was where Penicheiro spent most of her free time as a little girl, dribbling, passing and shooting until, as she likes to say, "the moon replaced the sun."
It was also where vacationing Portuguese men's club players played pickup games with the locals on summer evenings. Paulo would get there early for the 6:30 games, usually with Ticha, four years his junior, tagging along. "At first the boys wouldn't let me play, but then they started picking me first," says Ticha. "I was sneaky, I liked to steal a lot." With the much taller guys looming everywhere, she quickly learned that she could best contribute by passing the ball. "She knew her shot would get blocked, so she had to do all that fancy stuff to make things happen," says Paulo, a computer programmer who plays small forward for a club team in Leiria.
By the time she was 10, Ticha was a showboat who was liable to make five spin moves and dribble behind her back a dozen times before reaching half-court. One phys-ed teacher tried to shame her by asking, "How many points did you score with all those fancy moves?" But even now, with her hot-dogging days long behind her, Penicheiro finds it difficult to make her own shooting a priority. "My job is to make my teammates look good," she says.
Her approach to the game hasn't always sat well with her coaches. "Sometimes Ticha turns the easy thing into the complex thing, which doesn't necessarily produce the best results," says Portuguese national team coach José Leite. "When she was younger, she didn't care about discipline, so she was difficult to coach. But she feels the game differently than some of us. That's what makes her the player she is. That's a lesson for us coaches."
Larry, who describes herself as a "maniac for organization," usually has had point guards who thrived in highly structured offenses. Penicheiro, for her part, was appalled when she first learned that she would be expected to run an organized fast break. Some adjustments had to be made on both sides. "Having someone so creative was difficult for me as a coach, because it meant I had to lose a little control," says Larry. "But to stifle Ticha would take away too much of her game. So we have reached a happy medium. Now she sees the value in organization, and I see the value in creativity."