When he saw the basketball player from Old Dominion in the receiving line at a State Department reception last April, Vice President Al Gore beamed. "You know where I'm from, don't you?" the Tennessean said to the 5'11" point guard.
"Yes," she replied, smiling back at him, "but I won't hold it against you."
A couple of Secret Service guys recognized her too, and told her, out of Gore's earshot, that the Lady Monarchs "were robbed" in their 68-59 loss to the Lady Volunteers in the NCAA championship game the month before. But the guest of honor at the State Department reception, Portuguese prime minister António Guterres, had to be reminded why this young woman with bangs and a puckish smile was standing in front of him. She's a citizen of Portugal, he was told, a star jogadora de basket. Her name? Ticha Penicheiro.
It's the name that hundreds of prepubescent girls have screamed at every home game as the No. 2-ranked Lady Monarchs have bolted to an 8-0 record that includes victories over highly rated Illinois and Louisiana Tech. It's the name on the back of the replica jerseys that little boys don before Old Dominion games, and it's the autograph that lovesick adolescent boys beg for afterward. It's also a name that was on every significant All-America roster last year, but it's not one that always resonates with the average—or even the highly placed—citizen of Portugal.
Penicheiro finds this amusing. "I guess it's ironic that I come from a tiny country and this is where I'm noticed," she says. Noticed? Penicheiro, a nearly telepathic passer and a sticky-fingered ball thief, has spent the last three years being feared by opposing coaches and idolized by the Lady Monarchs faithful, who hadn't seen her sort of hoops legerdemain since the days of Nancy Lieberman (class of '80). At week's end Penicheiro was averaging 5.0 steals and 6.5 assists a game, which puts her on pace to eclipse Lieberman's school record for steals and perhaps break her mark for assists as well. Even if Penicheiro falls short of those records, the two U.S. pro leagues and a slew of European club teams will come calling next spring.
"In certain respects Ticha [pronounced TEE-sha] is eerily similar to Nancy: that confidence, the way she's almost worshiped by the people watching her," says Old Dominion coach Wendy Larry, who was a Lady Monarchs assistant in Lieberman's senior year. "Nancy could turn a crowd on with one no-look pass. Ticha does the same things. She's very entertaining."
The second-coming-of-Nancy buzz had preceded Penicheiro to the Old Dominion campus in Norfolk, Va., when she arrived in the Tall of 1994. Still, none of her teammates was quite prepared for the way she played the game. "You'd see her going up for a layup, and suddenly she'd pass the ball, and it would hit you in the face while you were looking at the basket," says senior center Nyree Roberts. "We all learned to run up and down the court with our hands in front of our faces."
"It's wild being on the court with Ticha," says former teammate Stacy Himes, who graduated last year. "You're so often in awe, wondering how she makes those passes. I swear she's got eyes in the back of her head."
Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, who watched Penicheiro score 18 points, get six assists and help hold Player of the Year Kate Starbird scoreless from the field in the second half of Old Dominion's 83-82 overtime win over the Cardinal in the NCAA semifinals, compares Penicheiro to Magic Johnson. "She's flashy but in a positive way," says VanDerveer. "She'd be fun to play with."
Penicheiro's teammates say that she's also fun to be with, that she's a generous and optimistic spirit who wants, says sophomore guard Natalie Diaz, "for everyone to be happy." Larry calls Penicheiro "the provider," and she isn't talking simply about assists. Penicheiro gives hours of her time to sign autographs, and she provides a sympathetic ear for troubled teammates, the neatest class notes to borrow and the party tapes that the Lady Monarchs listen to on the team bus. A stylish dresser, Penicheiro also sets the Old Dominion standard for shopping zealotry. "You can't stop her on the court or at the mall," says Diaz.