By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Seven games in, the UVa women’s basketball team is ranked No. 14 nationally. The Cavaliers have lost only once, to No. 6 Tennessee.
“You’re never where you hope you’ll be,” Debbie Ryan said. “That’s just not the way it is. But I feel like we’re doing some things that are great. We’re playing in close games. It’s great for us experience-wise. I’m getting to play a lot of players, and tonight I had to play a lot of players. I pulled lots of players off the bench, and each one of them gave me something different and gave me good minutes.”
Ryan’s comments came Thursday night after Virginia beat Purdue 56-49 in a Big Ten/ACC Challenge game at John Paul Jones Arena.
Coming in, the Wahoos’ top three scorers were senior guard Monica Wright, sophomore forward Chelsea Shine and junior guard Paulisha Kellum. Against the Boilermakers (3-4), they combined for 13 points.
Wright, a national-player-of-the-year candidate, had nearly as many fouls (five) as points (seven). Not since her sophomore season had she scored so little in a game.
“It’s a good sign for them that she only scored seven and they won,” Purdue coach Sharon Versyp said.
Wright fouled out with 6:12 left, sending Purdue’s best player, Brittany Rayburn, to the line for two shots. Rayburn made both to pull the Boilermakers to 44-40.
UVa is accustomed to having Wright on the floor in pressure situations, but that wasn’t an option Thursday night.
Still, freshman point guard China Crosby said, Wright “kept our heads high, with her drive and heart on the bench. I think she was a pretty good leader today.”
Ryan, for one, had little interest in learning how her team would play without its All-America guard.
“No, I was not curious at all,” Ryan said with a small smile. “But I had no choice, and I told the team when we got in the locker room, ‘To those people that are thinking we’re a one-man team, guess what: We’re not.’
“I already knew that. I knew that we would be good under pressure, but once you get there, you have to prove it, and you have to be able to do the things you have to do to win games at the end, and I just can’t give the younger players enough credit for the way they played tonight.”
Wright is the only senior, in terms of athletic eligibility, on UVa’s roster. Among the standouts against Purdue were sophomore guard Ariana Moorer (team-high 11 points, 3 steals), freshman guards Lexie Gerson (career-high 10 points) and Crosby (9 points, 2 assists) and sophomore guard Whitny Edwards (8 points, game-high 4 steals, 3 assists).
Moorer and Gerson weren’t the only reserves who made significant contributions. Freshman forward Telia McCall had 5 points and 4 rebounds in 17 minutes, and freshman center Simone Egwu grabbed 5 rebounds.
“As bench players, we knew what we needed to do to pick up [Wright’s] slack,” Gerson said.
Purdue closed to 48-47 with 2:15 left, but Virginia answered on the next possession, Crosby feeding Moorer for a layup. Crosby took a charge moments later, and Moorer’s two free throws with 1:40 to play made it a five-point game.
The Boilermakers’ hopes of a comeback were dashed, for all intents and purposes, when Crosby took another charge at the 1:22 mark.
In Virginia’s previous game, a win over South Dakota State last weekend, Crosby had suffered a concussion, and she “was not supposed to take a charge tonight,” Ryan said.
Crosby’s instincts took over, however, and her gems on defense helped UVa avoid what could have been a crushing defeat.
“It was really the younger players, I thought, and those coming off the bench that really, really played with great understanding of the game and gave us everything they had,” Ryan said.
Virginia’s next game is Sunday (4 p.m. tipoff) against James Madison University at JPJ. The Dukes, whose all-ACC guard, Dawn Evans, averages 24.2 points, are 5-0.
Their visit to Charlottesville is likely to be more entertaining than the Boilermakers’ was.
“It was, like, what, 1-0 for five minutes?” Gerson said. “A little crazy.”
The ‘Hoos didn’t score Thursday night until the 15:09 mark, when Wright’s 3-pointer made it 3-2. At halftime, UVa led 26-14, and Ryan’s team wasn’t much more productive after intermission.
The 56 points were a season low for Virginia, as was its field-goal percentage (26.9). UVa forced 27 turnovers, but its defensive lapses allowed the Boilermakers to inject suspense into the second half.
“We can play a whole lot better defensively than we did tonight,” Ryan said. “We don’t know how to close the door yet. We’re not quite that well-oiled machine yet.”
If they want to stretch their winning streak to four games, the ‘Hoos may have to play better against the Dukes.
“It’s going to be a really tough game,” Ryan said. “They’re undefeated. They’re coming in here to knock us off.”