Virginia Women's Basketball Knocks Off Vols, Turns Heads

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst INovember 18, 2008


The final score showed on the big screen as the shocked home crowd could only watch silently as the Virginia women's basketball team celebrated in the middle of the court where the Volunteers have brought in numerous national titles.

Although Knoxville, Tennessee is not that far from Charlottesville, Virginia, the victory for Monica Wright and her Cavaliers last night was a journey years in the making.

The junior guard from Woodbridge, Va. arrived to the John Paul Jones Arena with a decent amount of fanfare. 

She was one of the best recruits Virginia coach Debbie Ryan had pulled in for quite some time, but the No. 11 recruit in the country did not find turning around a sagging program to be easy.

The Cavaliers struggled in her freshman year. Wright was on a team that lacked a great deal of depth, versatility, and athleticism.  This resulted in Virginia being exposed in the ACC, where they finished eighth in the conference with a 5-9 mark.

Their reward for a 17-14 regular season was an invitation in the WNIT (which, come on...who knew that even existed?).  The appearance had many believing that Coach Ryan, who had built this program and led it to over 600 victories, had lost her touch.

Virginia was one basket away from winning the national championship in 1991 against Tennessee with the help of Dawn Staley, but now they were losing to South Dakota State.

With morale outside of the team at an all-time low, the Cavaliers got healthy. 

Aisha Mohammad, a juco transfer who missed the 2006-07 campaign with an ACL injury, was back, and her presence completely turned around the team.

Her inside presence alongside forward Lyndra Littles gave Virginia one of the best frontcourts in the country.  The Cavaliers were now starting to win those ACC games in 2007 that had eluded them in 2006.

Wright continued her stellar play, improving her shooting range and her decision making.

Despite playing over 100 minutes more in her second year, she committed fewer turnovers than her freshman year and bolstered her scoring average to nearly 18 points per game.

Still...Virginia was not content.

The Cavaliers may have finished fourth in the conference and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament, but something was missing.

Virginia had to prove it could win the big game.

Last year, against the top three ACC teams of UNC, Duke, and Maryland, the Cavaliers were 0-5. 

In fact, the Cavaliers only had one victory (86-83 decision over No. 22 Texas) over a ranked opponent the entire year.

Virginia had been humiliated by Connecticut earlier that season with a 30-point loss and seemed on a mission to impress the country but simply could not get it done.

Four of those five losses against the ACC elite were by 10 points or less.  The gap was narrowing, and last Monday the gap closed in impressive fashion.

Let's put this victory in Tennessee in perspective.

First off, the Volunteers never lose at home.  Their overall record is 295-19 at home since 1987, and the Cavaliers were 0-4 on that court in school history.

When Debbie Ryan first set foot on that court, her team was humiliated in their first Final Four by losing big.

In other words, this was a house of horrors for Virginia.

Secondly, Tennessee does not lose to Virginia.

The Volunteers had won 11 of the 12 meetings between these two teams heading into the contest.  That lone loss stuck with Pat Summit so much that she refused to give birth to her baby in Virginia when she went into labor while flying over the Old Dominion on her way back from a recruiting trip that offseason.

Oh yeah, they were also the two-time defending National Champions.

Last night, the Volunteers were putting up the banner and the Cavaliers were licking their wounds.

This win would have been impressive enough if Virginia had won it at full strength. Instead they won without two starters and their best bench player.

Littles, who averaged nearly 17 points and seven boards last year, was ruled academically ineligible.

Paulisha Kellum, the starting point guard who was going to have enough trouble replacing graduate Sharnee Zoll, who had set the ACC all-time assists records, was out for the year with an injury.

Then there was Enonge Stovall, a backup guard who started seven games last year and was one of the team's best defenders, out for academic reasons as well.

Virginia's victory goes far beyond the 15th-ranked team in the country knocking off a top 10 team at home.  It is the sign of a team that believes they can reach the top of the ACC yet again.

The Cavaliers have gone a long way in these three years, and Monica Wright has seen it firsthand.

Her 35-point performance introduced herself and her team to the women's basketball universe on Monday. 

It has been a journey for the Hall of Famer Debbie Ryan and her star pupil Wright, but Virginia looks to have emerged as a team that could return to its glory days of the early 1990s, where the goal was not just making the NCAA tournament, but winning it.

On behalf of everyone, allow me to say welcome back!