CINCINNATI -- For people who know women's basketball beyond Rebecca Lobo or Sheryl Swoopes or Lisa Leslie, tonight's NCAA championship game between Tennessee and Old Dominion is like a page right out of history.
The Lady Vols, of course, have always been a part of the tapestry of the game, as their four titles and 10 Final Four appearances attest.
But, for Old Dominion, tonight's title game appearance is akin to Lauren Bacall's Oscar nomination after years of noticeable, but not widely acclaimed, work.
"People kind of forgot about a little bit about Old Dominion, and I'm glad we're back on the map and that people realize that we do have a tradition and we already have won three national championships," said Ticha Penicheiro. [Tonight] when we play Tennessee, you'll have two teams that have a rich tradition. I'm just glad that I get to be a part of Old Dominion."
The second-ranked Lady Monarchs (34-1), who nipped Stanford, in overtime Friday night to get their first championship-game berth in 12 years, were once as dominant as Tennessee, winning two titles in the now-defunct Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, and an NCAA championship in 1985.
Then, Inge Nissen, Anne Donovan and the irrepressible Nancy Lieberman carried the day, but as they left and bigger schools beefed up their women's programs, Old Dominion continued to make its way to postseason play, making the NCAA tournament all but twice since 1982 but not to an elite level.
"When you have an opportunity to be a part of a national championship run, you experience something that's just kind of second to none," said Old Dominion coach Wendy Larry, who played at the school and was an assistant coach on two title teams. "When I took a head coaching position, one of my goals that I wrote down in a long-term sense would be to have an opportunity to share that type of feeling, that type exhilaration with some of my own players."
To get to this level, Larry went overseas to get three players who have been essential to the Lady Monarchs' ascent to the top. Three years ago, assistant coach Allison Greene delivered two players, senior forward Clarisse Machanguana, a native of Mozambique, and Penicheiro, whom she had seen while playing professionally in Portugal. Forward Mery Andrade arrived from Portugal a year later, and the "Portuguese Connection" has powered the Lady Monarchs to an 80-10 mark over their three seasons.
Machanguana, named last week as a Kodak All-American, is a silky smooth 6-foot-5 forward who runs the floor with the quickness of a guard. Andrade, a 6-1 junior, is the trash-talking, emotional defensive stopper.
But it is Penicheiro, a 5-10 senior, who "drives the ship," as Larry puts it. The flashy guard, who grew up watching Magic Johnson on Sunday afternoons when the NBA games from the United States were televised, clearly patterns her game after his, with no-look passes, off-balance jumpers and coast-to-coast drives.
"I get amazed when I'm out there on the court with her," said senior Stacy Himes (Old Mill). "It amazes me that she can make those kinds of passes. Sometimes, I feel like I'm making a no-look pass, not looking in that direction, but then she makes passes and her head is completely turned away."
Penicheiro, who led the nation in steals and assists, was also named a Kodak All-American, and is the key to Old Dominion's hopes tonight, when she will try to find Machanguana and center Nyree Roberts in the post, as she did in the Lady Monarchs' come-from-behind overtime win over Stanford Friday night.
"Penicheiro gets the ball whenever they want her to get the ball, and in the second half, it went to the block time after time after time," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt. "Well, that's because you've got two explosive go-to players on the block and they pass the ball well and beat you off the dribble. They are a great team. I don't see any weakness."
Indeed, when the Lady Monarchs beat Tennessee, 83-72 -- ending a 16-game losing streak over 14 years -- they erased a 10-point second-half deficit by pounding the Lady Vols on the boards to the tune of 40-24 while inducing three Tennessee players, two of them interior players, to foul out.
What the Lady Monarchs didn't do that December night was limit Tennessee forward Chamique Holdsclaw, but then no one else has this season, either. The gifted sophomore, who had 31 points in the 80-66 win over Notre Dame Friday, had 27 points that night and will be the focal point of Old Dominion's defense tonight, as Andrade, its best perimeter defender, will draw her in the man-to-man, but with lots of help.
"Our defense on Chamique Holdsclaw is going to have to be a team effort," said Penicheiro. "I know Mery, and she's going to play her best, but I think it takes more than one person. We won't do anything we haven't done all season."
Said Andrade: "I respect her offensive game. But I trust my defense, too, so it will be a pretty good challenge."
Perhaps one for the history books.
Tonight's title game