The Lady Monarchs who are back from last year's 34-2 team—the most successful since Old Dominion's 1985 NCAA championship squad—all agree: They didn't aim high enough. Yes, they got to the national title game last spring, but they lost 68-59 to Tennessee and "played as if we were just happy to be there," says coach Wendy Larry.
"We said we wanted to get to the Final Four last season," point guard Ticha Penicheiro says. "Now we want to win it."
Old Dominion just about has to take home the championship to justify Penicheiro's decision to return to the Lady Monarchs this season. An All-America from Figueira da Foz, Portugal, Penicheiro averaged 10.9 points, 7.8 assists and 4.5 steals last year and electrified the Old Dominion Field House with her no-look passes. The affection was mutual. Penicheiro, who got her communications degree in August, making her eligible for another season under a new NCAA rule governing partial qualifiers, passed up the opportunity to play in the ABL, the WNBA or a European pro league for another chance at an NCAA title.
Most of the Lady Monarchs spent the summer on campus in Norfolk, dividing up to play on different teams in a local summer league and then coming together for serious weight room workouts. When practices officially began in October, the sessions buzzed with midseason intensity. "Our practices are so competitive, I could see someone breaking a nose," says forward Mery Andrade, who averaged 11.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last year.
Newcomers aren't shown much mercy, either. "Just because you're learning something new, there's no reason not to work hard," says 6'3" senior center Nyree Roberts, Old Dominion's second-leading scorer (17.0 points per game) last season and the Lady Monarch most likely to scold another for not working hard.
Old Dominion's biggest challenge will be filling the void left by the departure of forward Clarisse Machanguana, last year's top scorer (19.9) and second-leading rebounder (7.4). Junior college transfer Emmora Keenan, a 6'5" New Zealander, will try to take up some of the slack, but holdover players will have to increase their productivity. Penicheiro worked on her outside shooting all summer, as did Aubrey Eblin, a junior guard who led the Colonial Athletic Association in three-point-shooting percentage.
Sophomore guard Natalie Diaz also should contribute, as she did in the national semifinal win over Stanford, in which she scored a season-high 10 points. A Native American from Needles, Calif., Diaz has a tribal tattoo on her left arm that tells her life story. Last year, she added a basketball and a moon to the tattoo. Next year, she would love to add something emblematic of an NCAA title.