Feeling blue? A little under the weather? Need a pick-me-up? If so, then book a flight to Happy Valley, home of the No. 1-ranked Penn State women's basketball team, which features players whose smiles are as contagious as the flu. The Lady Lions break into song before games, they break into song after games. Sometimes they even break into song during fast breaks. Just kidding. But if they did belt out a tune during a break, it certainly wouldn't be out of character. "Sometimes when things are really tense, like at a point during [last week's] Ohio State game when we were pulling our hair out, we'll go into a huddle, take a deep breath and laugh. Just look at each other and laugh. It gets us focused," says 6'2" junior center Missy Masley.
Through last weekend Penn State had laughed its way to a 16-0 record, making the Lady Lions the only undefeated Division I team, men's or women's, in the country. But their ascension to the top hasn't been altogether heavenly. Consider the recent eight-day, four-game run that coach Rene Portland dubbed the "week from hell." Between Jan. 23 and last Sunday, Penn State thumped Michigan 97-53 in Ann Arbor, put away No. 17 Ohio State 74-66 in Columbus, knocked down No. 9 Vanderbilt 66-51 in Nashville and drilled Wisconsin 73-53 at home.
After the two road games in only three days against half of last season's Final Four—Ohio State and Vanderbilt—in front of the two largest crowds ever to watch Penn State play, the Lady Lions returned to Happy Valley last Friday exhausted, but with smiles on their faces, of course. Portland worries only when this group of chatterboxes is quiet. Chances are, that's when someone is preparing to pull a prank on a teammate or a coach. On one such occasion, some creative editors took current Lady Lion game films and spliced in clips of Portland playing for Immaculata College's national champion teams in the early '70s; another time, the film doctors added some embarrassing footage of co-captain Helen Holloway doing a TV interview on a bad hair day. "We look for ways to torture each other," says Portland, with a laugh.
This good humor, along with one of the toughest defenses in the country and a balanced scoring attack, has been the key to Penn State's hot streak. Until this year the Lady Lions' best start had been an 11-0 run in 1990-91. That was also the season the lucky-penny tradition started.
February 7, 1994
Before the first game that year Portland's youngest child, Stephen, who was then eight, presented his mother with a lucky penny, which she tucked in her left shoe. "The second game of that season came, and he gave me a second lucky penny," says Portland. "I said, 'What do I do with this first one?' and he said, 'Put it in your shoe.' So the third game came, and he gave me a third penny. We kept winning until I had 11 pennies in my shoe. Then we lost the 12th game, and I asked him, 'What do I do with these 12 pennies?' He told me to throw them out, because they don't work anymore."
If the Lady Lions keep winning this year, Stephen's piggy bank could run dry. Before the recent three-game road trip, he gave his mother three more pennies from heaven in separate envelopes marked for the Michigan, Ohio State and Vanderbilt games. On Sunday, before playing Wisconsin, Portland taped 16 cents inside the arch of a high-heeled shoe. "They hurt," said Portland, who may want to consider switching to penny loafers.
Appropriately, Penn State's climb to the top can largely be attributed to its penny-pinching defense, which has held opponents to 36.3% shooting from the field. Buckeye All-America forward Katie Smith, who was averaging 21.3 points, was scoreless in the first half against the Lady Lions and finished with nine points. Against Vandy the Lady Lions made another All-America, 6'10" center Heidi Gillingham, look half her size.
"I told Rene after the game that this is the best team she's ever had because of her players' athleticism," says Vanderbilt coach Jim Foster. "They're for real. Rene's teams always play hard, and when she gets a point guard like Tina Nicholson, her teams are very' good."
Nicholson, a 5'3" sophomore, is usually about a foot shorter and a foot quicker than everybody else on the court. She cuts through opposing defenses just as she did when she was a kid and played fullback for the Downingtown (Pa.) Young Whippets, a football team in her hometown. When she was in third grade, she begged her father, Paul, who was an assistant coach for the Whippets, to let her join the team. Back then she towered over the boys in the midget league. "It was the only time I've ever been too big," says Tina, who has been stuck at 5'3" for the last 11 years.
She was also 15 pounds over the league limit of 70 pounds. To lose weight she ran stairs at a nearby paper mill. Once she started playing football, she became the star of the league. She scored a league-high 21 touchdowns in 1982, outscoring her running mate in the Young Whippets' back-field, a boy named Clint Seace, who is one of Joe Paterno's 1994 recruits.
Because she has so much confidence in Nicholson and her backcourt partner, junior Katina Mack, the Lady Lions' second leading scorer with a 13.4 average, Portland dumped her structured offense of seasons past and opted for this year's any-thing-goes attack. Portland's new philosophy: "Run a pick-and-roll anytime you want, run a backdoor anytime you want, do anything anytime you want. Just make sure you're always moving."
The only trouble is, says Portland, "I never know what they are going to do."
And who knows what's ahead for Penn State in the next two months? Last week Portland reminded her players, "I'd rather be around longer in March and April than be Number 1 during the season." Despite being ranked in the Top 10 going into the NCAA tournament the past three years, the Lady Lions failed to advance beyond the regional semifinals.
The only thing certain now is that, come April, Portland will head for Disney World for an annual outing with her husband, John, sons Stephen and John Jr., and daughter Christine. "After a long season, it's my time to be with my family," she says. "There can't be a happier place for me." Who knows? Maybe this year the whole team from Happy Valley will come along for the ride.