Ticha Penicheiro stood at the free throw line and took a deep breath. Then she bounced the ball before her and breathed deeply again.
She was into overtime, and out of oxygen. Mentally drained. Physically spent. She flipped the ball at the basket, and it clanged off the rim. She had been given a shot to put Stanford away in the national semifinals, but she was too tired to sink it.
''I believe that when I miss a shot, that I've got to get it back,'' the Old Dominion point guard said Friday night. ''I needed to get that ball back. It's something I've done all year.''
So with her whole season in the balance, and her legs beginning to wobble, Penicheiro willed herself to get back on defense. She forced her feet up the floor in weary pursuit of Stanford point guard Jamila Wideman.
Wideman paused with 23 seconds to play, Penicheiro pounced, and Old Dominion advanced to the NCAA Women's Championship game with an 83-82 victory.
Stanford would get three more shots at the basket in the closing seconds, but the story of this game was succinctly summarized by Penicheiro's steal. The Lady Monarchs never gave up, even after their legs gave out.
Game turned on willpower
Sometimes, in sports, it is not so much a matter of which team has the better talent. Sometimes, a game turns on willpower.
Ticha Penicheiro seized Friday's semifinal by the scruff of the neck, and made it her own. Stanford All-American Kate Starbird scored 21 points in the first half, and never scored another field goal. This was largely because of Penicheiro's pressure in transition defense. ODU forward Mery Andrade would be credited with stopping Starbird in the halfcourt offense, but it was primarily Penicheiro who eliminated open shots on the fast break - Starbird's specialty.
This was a lot of defense to ask of a point guard on a night she would need to play 43 out of 45 minutes. It was not, however, too much to ask.
''I know as a captain, as a senior, as a point guard, I had to take the lead out there,'' Penicheiro said. ''And as good as my teammates are, they followed me.''
For the first 18 minutes, Old Dominion seemed destined to follow Penicheiro to oblivion. The Lady Monarchs trailed Stanford, 37-23, and Starbird was shooting virtually uncontested.
She found her range from the three-point line, and would hit 7-of-8 shots from the field in the first half.
Had to stop Starbird
''She was unbelievable,'' Penicheiro said. ''She was just on fire. I was very frustrated in the first half because one of my goals coming into the game was to stop Kate Starbird. In the second half, we knew in order to stop Stanford, we had to stop her. In the second half, we started getting in her face.''
''When they caught up, I think I just really went tight,'' Starbird said, but the bigger difference was breathing room. In the second half, and overtime, Penicheiro and Andrade permitted Starbird little in the way of an open look. She would miss her last six shots.
Defense was the most important aspect of Penicheiro's evening, but the stat sheet showed other significant contributions. In addition to disrupting Starbird's shot, she scored 18 points of her own. She had six assists and grabbed five rebounds. Plus the steal.
She took most of the important shots in overtime - a driving layup that tied the game at 82-82; the free throw that provided the game's final point - and she continued to drive the lane well after she had hit the wall. She had not come this far just to go home.
''This,'' she said, ''is everything we've dreamed of.''
Old Dominion coach Wendy Larry had told her players that the tournament must be taken piece by piece, as if one were out to eat an elephant. Only one last morsel remains.
''I've never eaten elephant before,'' Ticha Penicheiro said. ''But it tastes pretty good.''
WOMEN'S FINAL FOUR PAGE