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Feb. 4, 2007

by Cathy Bongiovi

Three years ago, Tara McKnight tried out for the Virginia women’s basketball program. She didn’t make the team.

With encouragement from the players, the determined McKnight took another year to work on her game. As a sophomore, she went through the try-out process again. This time, she succeeded.

Now in her third year, McKnight is one of the Cavaliers’ team captains.

A senior academically, the guard from Bluffton, S.C., will graduate in May with a degree in history. However, the fan favorite plans to return to the squad again next year.

“I’m going to go to grad school next year in higher education,” McKnight said. “Eventually I’d like to coach.”

Coaching is a part of McKnight’s unofficial duties already. A core member of the team’s scout squad, McKnight learns opponents’ plays and tendencies. She then takes on the Cavalier starters, helping them prepare for the next game at hand.

“Tara means a lot to us,” head coach Debbie Ryan said. “She brings everything that a player should have. She has an extremely good work ethic. She’s somebody that has true passion for Virginia and Virginia basketball. She brings all the things that you would want any player to bring to the table, and she works relentlessly to get better. She’ll come in early to pick up scouting reports, so she knows exactly who she needs to pay attention to on the scout team. She makes our team better every single day. She’s a good captain and a good leader.”

So far this season, McKnight has seen action in seven games off the bench. In the final six minutes in the win over Cleveland State, she launched three consecutive three-pointers for a career-high nine points. Her last trey scored the game’s 100th point and added to the school record 13 three-point baskets.

“The team knows that Tara can shoot,” Ryan said. “She has gone into games in the past and been a little bit anxious. I told her to relax and just stroke it when she had it, but to let herself get loosened up first. And I thought that when she hit her first one, she was really pumped and just took it from there.”

Fellow captain and point guard Sharneé Zoll admires McKnight’s determination.

“I love when Tara gets into the game,” Zoll said. “And she gets a couple of minutes to warm up, so she can get a shot off.”

With the added pressure of being a captain, McKnight’s gameplan has stayed the same.

“It puts more responsibility on me to be more of a leader, to be more vocal and to try to be a good role model for everyone on and off the court,” McKnight said. “I’m honored to have that position- that my teammates think that I should do that. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Adding to McKnight’s fun this season has been playing Virginia’s new home- the John Paul Jones Arena.

“I like that we can come in whenever we want,” McKnight said. “That’s really nice. We have everything at our fingertips. If we wanted to spend the night in the locker room, we could easily do so. We have a refrigerator, showers, etc., so it’s luxurious. We’re very spoiled, but we really appreciate everything we have. We do our school work here; we eat here; we really don’t have to leave.”

The arena’s dining hall for all UVa student-athletes has brought the athletes closer together.

“Many times we’ll have the entire team sitting at the table eating and not thinking anything of it,” McKnight said. “`Wow, we have the whole team here! This is nice.’ It’s like a family dinner. It’s nice to have. I grew up with that. They’re our family here.”

A Cavalier since birth, McKnight learned early what it’s like to wear Orange and Blue. Her father- Tom- played golf at Virginia from 1973-76 and is now a member of the PGA Champions Tour. Last week, he tied for 13th at the Turtle Bay Championship in Honolulu, Hawaii. A regular in the stands cheering on his daughter, the elder McKnight won’t see UVa play for a while.

“I know he’ll be back as soon as he can,” McKnight said. “I don’t know when that will be- hopefully for the ACC Tournament.”

In the meantime, McKnight and her teammates will concentrate on the last six games of the regular season. After overcoming many unforeseen obstacles early, McKnight knows the team must continue to work hard to get a postseason berth.

“We’ve had an unfortunate turn of events this season, but we can’t use that as an excuse,” McKnight said. “We know we’ve had a rough start. When we lose, obviously it’s not what we want. We just have to have a positive outlook, because we know it’s still possible to get to the Final Four. All we have to do is get an NCAA Tournament bid, and then it`s in our hands from there. We just have to win from here on out, and things are looking good.”

Out of Bounds with Tara McKnight

Food: Ribs
Junk Food: Chocolate chip cookies
Ice cream: Vanilla
Color: Orange/Pink
Movie: Pistol Pete: Birth of a Legend
Actor: Denzel Washington, Richard Gere
Actress: Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock
Book: Tuesdays with Morrie
Basketball Drill: Slice

Most embarrassing group on my iPod …
Spice Girls

Three words that best describe me …
passionate, determined, committed

The extreme activity I would like to try …
racing Formula 1 cars

My advice to a young athlete is …
never give up and follow your dreams

The best thing about being a Cavalier is …
living my dream and being a part of a great program

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