- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2008

Selection Sunday had never been quite as painful.

Virginia women’s basketball coach Debbie Ryan felt her stomach churn in 2004 as the 64 teams were announced for the NCAA tournament without the inclusion of the Cavaliers. Sitting three games under .500, Ryan knew her program would be on the outside looking in for the first time in 21 years.

The four seasons that have followed included postseason berths, but trips to the NCAA tournament were sandwiched around back-to-back forgettable experiences in the Women’s NIT.

Ryan’s detractors were plentiful, as many felt a bout with pancreatic cancer had helped the game pass her by.

The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame coach beat the illness and remained persistent, promising a turnaround was in the program’s future.

On Monday, the 16th-ranked Cavaliers took a giant leap to providing on that claim. They mounted a late rally to stun the two-time defending national champ and fifth-ranked Tennessee, 83-82, in Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.

“It was a great win for our program,” said Ryan, who entered 1-11 all-time against the Lady Vols. “It ranks way up there. It’s something that will go down as one of the better games.”

Friends from around the world called to congratulate Ryan. Recruits that had not considered Virginia previously surfaced in the dark of night. Tickets sales for games at John Paul Jones Arena promptly spiked.

While the victory over the Lady Vols could prove valuable in determining seeding for the NCAA Tournament, Ryan is looking ahead with trepidation.

Virginia (2-0) faces another tough test Friday at No. 25 Old Dominion in a rematch of last season’s clash in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Monarchs dispatched the Cavaliers 88-85 in overtime to advance to the Greensboro, N.C., regional semifinal.

“I had to give them a day off after the Tennessee game, but I wish that I didn’t have to do that because I would have liked to have brought them in and made them practice and forget it,” Ryan said. “All they have heard is how wonderful they are, and I told them that they weren’t that good.

“I said, ‘Tennessee will beat you against ODU if you are not careful.’ We can be so much better and we are just beginning to scratch the surface of how good we can be.”

Without coincidence, Virginia’s resurgence has transpired as All-ACC guard Monica Wright, who hails from Forest Park High School in Woodbridge, has developed.

Wright scored a career-high 35 points and registered five steals in 39 minutes against Tennessee. The scoring output tied for the fifth-highest total in program history.

“Monica hit some incredible shots,” Ryan said. “She was in another area code, basically.”

More importantly, Wright led a youthful team looking to replace former point guard Sharnee Zoll, the all-time assist leader in the ACC.

Compounding matters, the Cavaliers are without two starters, junior point guard Paulisha Kellum and senior forward Lyndra Littles. Kellum was lost for the season with a knee injury in October, but Littles, who’s academically ineligible, could return for the second semester.

“Monica did a great job of keeping the team up and keeping them prepared, motivated and ready against Tennessee,” Ryan said. “She did a great job almost the entire game of keeping things in perspective. That was the most amazing part of it.”

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