Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Penn State Media Day: Will "Worst Ever" Become A Thing of the Past???

By Mel Greenberg

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. _
The Penn State women’s basketball team is unable to do anything involving coach Rene Portland’s ongoing legal battles concerning a former player who claims she was forced off the squad by Portland two seasons ago.

But they can something about the competitive stigma they placed upon themselves last season when they finished 13-16 for the worst record in Portland’s 26 seasons with the program and the worst overall involving a significant number of games.

The other losing seasons were 2-3 in 1967 and 3-5 in 1973.

“Being the worst team in Lady Lion history has motivated us,” said sophomore guard Brianne O’Rourke, a native of Pittsburgh, during Wednesday’s media day. “It has made us hungrier. We want to get this team back to the highest level.”

The basketball speak in the Bryce Jordan Center actually began with a short round of dodge ball.

An announcement was made before Portland’s session with the media began that the discussion would be limited to talk about the team’s season ahead.

That was followed by a question from a reporter asking Portland to elaborate on a comment she had made to USA Today at the close of last season. The question noted she had said she might have underestimated the negative impact the off court events had on the young squad.

Portland, a native of Broomall, Pa., outside Philadelphia, and a former star on Immaculata’s national powerhouse in the early 1970s, refused to be drawn into the discussion.

“I think I made it very clear that the ground rules of this press conference are this season coming up,” Portland said, unruffled. “Honestly, because of the litigation that we are involved in right now, I am not in a position to discuss anything that you would want to discuss in that area, so let’s get to the ground rules. We are talking about this season.”

And that’s the way that element of the season ahead will exist until at least May, barring a settlement, when former player Jennifer Harris’ federal lawsuit is scheduled to come to trial.

Harris transferred to James Madison after the 2005 season and is now eligible to play after sitting out a year under NCAA rules.

It was the day after the annual season outlook with the media here last year that news first broke that Harris was filing a complaint against Portland. She claimed the longtime Penn State coach forced her off the team because she thought Harris was a lesbian.

Portland responded that Harris’ dismissal involved her “work ethic” and not because of any sexual proclivity.

Harris’ lawyers in December filed a discrimination suit with the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

Penn State held its own internal investigation of the matter and in April announced Portland had violated school policy in terms of Harris’ accusation, fined her $10,000, and threatened to fire her if any future violations occur. She was also required to participate in a program focusing on diversity and inclusiveness.

Portland argued the result in a brief press conference and has not commented since on the matter, citing the existing litigation.

The discussion the rest of the day returned to basketball, although a few players minimized the topic when asked.

“Last year really wasn’t a distraction,” senior Amanda Brown, a native of Kennett Square, Pa., near Philadelphia, said. “We didn’t even think about it. But we are focused on this season. We need to focus on winning, because we didn’t do very well with that last year.”

Brown is excited about Penn State’s Nov. 10 season opener at Drexel in Philadelphia.

“I can’t wait,” she said.

She recently played with the Canadian national team in the FIBA world championships in Brazil.

Penn State will certainly be more experienced this season to fight the Big Ten Conference wars with Brown, 6-1 junior guard Kamela Gissendanner, and the other three starters all back in the lineup.

Portland is thrilled to have O’Rourke come back to run the team with the year of experience in which she led the Big Ten in minutes played and assists with a 5.1 average.

“It’s very, very helpful to us,” she continued and added she is also comfortable with the return of 5-10 sophomore Mashea Williams as a backup at the point.

“This is probably the deepest we’ve had at the position,” Portland cited freshman guard Meggan Quinn.

“One day we may be speaking of her in terms of a (all-American) Kelly Mazzante,:” Portland compared Quinn if Penn State’s all-time scorer. “She has a shooter’s mentality. “She has an enjoyment about her. She has an energy about her. She cheers when she throws an assist and the kid makes the bucket.

“With this team, we are much further ahead than last year at this time and the freshmen are helping in that development,” Portland said.

The other newcomers are 5-11 guard Tyra Grant and 5-3 forward Meredith Monroe.

Portland said conditioning has been a focus so the team could finish in close games, which didn’t happen much a year ago.

“The teams that have won here finished and you can’t finish as a young team,” Portland said.

Portland will look to her depth to help get through four games in seven days in the early part of the schedule.

She said scheduling was the most difficult because the addition of two more games under recent NCAA legislation.

Penn State will play Rutgers for the first time in several years in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands.

Portland noted the two teams don’t meet in the season anymore but that she had “respect” for the program and what they do.

It was mentioned to Portland that in that game she will actually be on the bench across from one of her former Immaculata teammates in C. Vivian Stringer’s new assistant Marianne Stanley.

“Then it will be two against one,” Portland laughed.

-- Mel

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