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The 2006-07 season was a historic one for the storied Virginia women’s basketball program as Debbie Ryan coached her 30th season at UVa and the team moved into its new home, the state-of-the-art John Paul Jones Arena. While the Cavaliers advanced to the postseason for the 25th time in program history, reaching the quarterfinals of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, all have set their goal this year to return to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence.

Ryan will turn to senior captains, Sharne Zoll and Tara McKnight, to help lead the squad back to the top of the ACC standings. Zoll, the lone member of Ryan’s squad with NCAA Tournament experience, was an All-ACC performer as a sophomore who played through injuries last season. She was the team’s leader in assists and is on track to break Dawn Staley’s record during her final year as a Cavalier.

“Sharne is the soul of this team,” Ryan said. “She has meant everything to me. It was hard to me to see her not get to the NCAA Tournament for two years. It’s hard for me not to be in the NCAA Tournament for two years. I want her to have a taste of everything I brought her here for. She has given me a lot and I want to make sure we finish this year putting her in position to receive every accolade she deserves.”

Zoll was third in scoring a year ago, averaging 9.6 points per game. Her 209 assists not only led the team but also ranked first among ACC players.

McKnight has been a walk-on player for the past three years before earning a scholarship for the 2007-08 campaign. McKnight is serving her second year in the role of team co-captain.

“Tara has worked really hard on her game,” Ryan said. “She has a lot of passion for basketball and she is a true asset to our program.”

In addition to Zoll and McKnight, All-ACC performers Lyndra Littles and Monica Wright will be counted on as big contributors for Virginia. Littles, a forward, had a breakout sophomore campaign in which she led the Cavaliers in scoring (17.3 ppg.) and rebounds (8.8 rpg.) and was named second team all-conference.

“Lyndra is maturing right before our eyes,” Ryan said. “I would like to see her use her versatility, maybe play a little bit at the three for us, besides playing the four. She is obviously a workhorse at the four for us.”

Wright was Virginia’s first ACC Rookie of the Year since Brandi Teamer in 2002 and was second on the squad in scoring, averaging 15.1 points per game. Wright also led the Cavaliers in steals and was second behind Zoll in assists.

Wright is coming off a very productive summer in which she helped led the United States Under-19 national team to a gold medal at the World Championships in Slovakia. According to Ryan, her experiences playing for USA Basketball helped her develop into more of a leader. That will be something Wright’s Cavalier teammates look to her more for now that she has a season of college experience behind her.

“She was really a leader on the U19 team and that really made her step up and show what she can do,” Ryan said. “She didn’t have to follow anyone; she showed what she could do. That was a really good experience for her to be able to have to take the reigns and be very vocal and show the kind of basketball intelligence that she has.”

Joining Zoll and Wright at the guard position are returnees Paulisha Kellum and Britnee Millner. Kellum came off the bench to play in all 34 games last season, averaging 6.6 ppg., and has put herself in good position to compete for a starting spot in 2007-08.

“Paulisha was a real surprise to a lot of people last year,” Ryan said. “She is a powerful guard and shoots the ball fairly well. Her first step is what is surprising to everyone; she is just great with the basketball and comes off the screens hard.”

Millner played in 29 games as a sophomore last season and hit some strides during the team’s international trip to Africa and the Canary Islands last May.

“Britnee is another player that has come a long way for us,” Ryan said. She did a good job at the two position during our trip to Africa. She played very consistently for us over there and that is really what we are looking for in Britnee. She is very athletic and is a very good defender.”

Returning at the low post for Virginia is junior Abby Robertson and sophomore Jayna Hartig. Robertson competed in every game a year ago, including six starts, and shot 49 percent from the field.

“She had a great summer for us and played very well in Africa,” Ryan said. “She is very strong and will look to score. She really has blossomed as a player this summer.”

Hartig saw action in 29 games as a rookie and is one of Ryan’s most versatile players with the ability to shoot the three and play down low in the post.

“Jayna really came on strong toward the end of last year,” Ryan said. “She can play that forward spot and also move into the post for us. She has good size and is a very good passer. I would like to see her fill the role where we can really use her in that high-post area. She is someone we can really benefit from.”

Neither center Aisha Mohammed or guard Enong Stovall stepped on the court last year but both are familiar with Ryan and the Virginia system. Mohammed received a redshirt after suffering a torn ACL last fall while playing in the World Championships for her home country, Nigeria. Mohammed, who came to Virginia from Central Arizona Junior College, is expected to be one of Ryan’s biggest threats down low this season.

“Aisha is another player who will be very strong in the post for us,” Ryan said. “She had a very good preseason and plays very hard in practice. She is good on the boards and finishes well around the basket. She is a lefty and just a very strong inside presence.”

Stovall did not play last season while attending to family matters after seeing action in 14 games as a freshman during the 2005-06 campaign. Her return has given Virginia even more versatility as well as some defensive strength.

“She can play anywhere from the two to the four,” Ryan said. “She is really good inside, loves to bang, is very good on the boards and very athletic. She is extremely good off the ball defensively. She has a lot of different skills of which we need to take advantage.”

Ryan welcomes two new faces to the roster this season in junior transfer Kristen London and the lone freshman, forward Kelly Hartig.

London spent the 2006-07 season at Seminole State College in Oklahoma where she averaged 13.3 ppg. and 8.3 rpg. en route to earning a second team all-league selection.

“Kristen is a very athletic player, has a good skill-set, and knows where the basket is,” Ryan said. “She will be a two or a three. Kristen is a slashing player and obviously coming into UVa it takes time to learn the system. But she is someone who will hopefully be able to contribute, especially with her athleticism and ability to rebound the ball.”

Hartig, the younger sister of sophomore forward Jayna Hartig, was an honorable mention on Street & Smith’s All-American team in 2005 and 2006. An injury forced Hartig to miss most of her senior season at Thunder Ridge High School in Highlands, Ranch, Colo.

“Kelly has been a little bit of a surprise in terms of how far along she is,” Ryan said. “I knew she was a very good player. She was a five-star player coming in. But she is very, very strong in her footwork and very advanced in her skill-set. Kelly is someone who will probably make more of an impact than I thought if she buys into the system a little quicker than most post players do when the first get into a college system.”

With more experienced players and the top three scorers from last year returning, Ryan is eyeing defense as a major focal point for the 2007-08 Cavaliers. The squad is expected to take the shape of some of Ryan’s well-know teams famous for defense, rebounding and running.

“This year, unlike last year, we will get back to being a very strong defensive team,” Ryan said. “That was our Achilles’ heel last year and has been a real emphasis for us into the spring, taking the tour overseas and of course into the summer and preseason. It has been the single-most important part of our preparation. We have probably spent three-quarters of our practice time on our defense and will continue to do so.

“I know we can score, I know we can put points on the board, and I am not worried about that as much as I am improving our field-goal percentage defense, improving our assist-to-turnover ratio and making sure we can rebound the basketball with the best in the conference.”

As far as the ACC goes, Ryan expects another strong year for the conference and hopes for Virginia to be right there in the mix.

“There are some really strong teams in the conference this year that maybe aren’t named Duke or Carolina,” Ryan said. “That is still to be proven. Florida State and Georgia Tech are going to be strong teams. We all have to wait and see. Everybody is undefeated right now. Everybody is happy. The bottom line is you have to prove it on the court. Nobody has proven anything at this point. I can tell you that we are going to compete and we are going to be in every single game.”

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