The trouble with Clarisse Machanguana is that she sometimes forgets how good she is.
She stops playing basketball and starts letting basketball play her. She becomes timid, listless, loitering in the low post as if she were waiting for a bus. When the Old Dominion forward ought to be taking the ball to
the hole, she seems to be looking for a hole in which to hide.
Friday night, for example.
''My brother (Raul) was chewing me out because my first half was awful,'' Machanguana recalled Saturday afternoon at Riverfront Coliseum. ''And he was so excited that he was scaring me. He was yelling and yelling and I was like, 'Calm down. Calm down. Twenty more minutes and we can change the situation.'...''
For the outstanding athletes, one's fate is never completely sealed. There is always time to reverse a trend, to commence a comeback, to atone for a truly awful first half. Clarisse Machanguana did not score for the first 20 minutes of Friday's semifinal against Stanford, an 83-82 overtime epic, and yet she finished with 18 points.
She remembered how good she is, and then she reminded the rest of us. She started playing like a
6-foot-5 forward instead of a chalk outline. She turned it on just in time.
In analyzing tonight's NCAA Championship game between Old Dominion and Tennessee, the hardest factor to figure is Machanguana's motivation. Is she determined to dominate, or disposed to disappear? The senior from Mozambique has scored as many as 35 points in the tournament, and as few as six.
''Sometimes, when my offense doesn't come naturally, I don't force it,'' she said.
Tonight would seem a good time for some assertiveness training.
ODU trounced the Lady Volunteers in January, 83-72, and Machanguana made most of the difference. She scored 22 points, grabbed seven rebounds, made three assists and blocked two shots. Asked Saturday for her most vivid memory of that game, Tennessee star Chamique Holdsclaw replied, ''Clarisse.''
''She just dominated,'' Holdsclaw said. ''She was awesome. She just basically killed our post players. We couldn't stop her.Ç.Ç. Obviously, we can't cut her any slack, or she'll take advantage of us.''
Her basketball lapses notwithstanding, Clarisse Machanguana is usually swift to seize an opportunity. She signed on at Old Dominion without ever having seen the campus and without any first-hand knowledge of women's college basketball. Without a satellite dish, it's tough to pick up SportsCenter on the East Coast of Africa.
''I only knew about the NBA,'' Machanguana said. ''You had to have lots of money to have access to the main (television) channels here. The only tapes people could get were NBA.''
She had no way of knowing how well her basketball skills compared to the top women's players in America. Or, for that matter, how poorly her shoes compared.
''I still remember the first time Clarisse put on her Nike sneakers,'' Old Dominion assistant coach Allison Greene recalled recently. ''She was almost teary eyed, she was so touched that they fit. She had had calluses on her toes because her feet were so scrunched in her old shoes. She couldn't believe it when she found out she got four pairs of high tops, cross trainers and running shoes.''
Machanguana said Saturday she had no memory of that incident, but acknowledged that the size of her feet often forced her to wear men's shoes or overly snug women's models. She could not help but be struck by America's plenty compared to Mozambique's meager resources - the easy access to computers, the availability of books - but she could not take it all in at once.
Not until she learned the language.
''It was not intimidating,'' she said, ''but frustrating. I couldn't go right away to real class. I had to go to intensive English, which gave me no credits (toward a diploma). Age never stops, and my life wasn't going anywhere.''
Machanguana still aspires to a law degree, but her life is likely to lead in a different direction now. She will exhaust her eligibility at Old Dominion at a time when competing women's professional leagues are vying for talented players - a notion that would have been unimaginable two or three years ago.
''I believe I had this chance by luck,'' Clarisse Machanguana said. ''People (in Mozambique) see your talent, but not everybody can have the strength or have the contacts to talk to somebody outside that environment. There are very good players who never had the chance.''
A lot of them are still learning just how good they are.
WOMEN'S FINAL FOUR PAGE