By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the first half of her first college basketball game, she did not play like someone who would one day become her school’s all-time leading scorer.
The date was Nov. 10, 2006; the place, Kingston, R.I. Against Rhode Island, Monica Wright went 0 for 7 from the floor and 0 for 2 from the line in the first 20 minutes.
That inauspicious start was an aberration, as her University of Virginia coaches and teammates already knew and fans quickly learned. Forty-eight seconds into the second half, Wright put in a stickback, and she hasn’t stopped scoring since.
The 5-11 guard from Woodbridge totaled 512 points as a freshman, 598 as a sophomore and 696 as a junior — 1,806 in all. That put her sixth on UVa’s all-time scoring list heading into her senior season. And the countdown began.
Wright passed Tammi Reiss (1,842 points) on Nov. 15.
She passed Lyndra Littles (1,876) on Nov. 22.
She passed Wendy Palmer (1,918), now one of Wright’s coaches, on Nov. 27.
She passed Heather Burge (2,058) on Jan. 2.
That left only one UVa legend between Wright and the record, and she overtook Dawn Staley (2,135) on Monday night before 3,361 fans at John Paul Jones Arena and an ESPN2 audience.
Wright needed 16 points against ACC rival Maryland to reach 2,136. The record-breaker came on a 3-pointer from the left corner — right in front of the UVa bench — with 13:01 remaining.
That pulled the 21st-ranked Cavaliers to 43-42. Maryland called time out, and fans at JPJ rose to their feet and applauded Wright’s feat. The standing ovation continued until play resumed.
“Obviously I didn’t want to see her break it against us, but at the same time it’s kind of special to be able to see her break it, because of the player that she is,” Terrapins coach Brenda Frese said. “Just a world-class athlete in terms of her ability to score.”
Wright finished with 20 points, giving her 2,140 for her career. Afterward, though, she couldn’t stop thinking about two she didn’t score.
Trailing 61-60, Virginia called a timeout in the frontcourt with 3.1 seconds left. Jayna Hartig inbounded the ball to Wright, on whom three Terps quickly converged. With time running out, Wright put up a contested shot that fell short. No foul was called, and the buzzer sounded.
“We knew that they wanted to get the ball in her hands,” Maryland center Lynetta Kizer said, “so we just made a team effort to all huddle around her and make sure she didn’t get that shot off.”
A ceremony followed during which a highlight video of Wright’s career was shown. It included a tribute from Staley, a two-time national player of the year at UVa who’s now head coach at South Carolina.
“You go, girl!” Staley told Wright.
Wright received a commemorative ball from UVa athletics director Craig Littlepage and once again basked in the crowd’s applause.
It didn’t seem to lift her spirits much. Later, in the JPJ press room, Wright told reporters that “the fact that we lost the game is just very overwhelming. I’m just disappointed and mad about the loss.”
At some point, Wright said, she’ll reflect on her accomplishment, “but not right now. Not anytime soon.”
Others were happy to do so Monday night.
“I think the thing that separates Monica from a lot of players out there is her competitiveness, her will to win,” Frese said.
No one, of course, is more qualified to talk about Wright’s college career than Debbie Ryan, who also coached Staley (and Burge and Palmer and Littles and Reiss).
“She has given her heart, her soul, her body,” Ryan said. “She’s basically given us everything that she has, every single minute. Whether we’re in practice, out of practice, on the court, off the court. She just gives. She gives and gives and gives.
“She exemplifies what a student-athlete is all about. I just think that she is very, very special in every way, shape and form. To have her have this record is tremendous.”
An ending scripted in Hollywood — Monica Wright hits the game-winner! — seemed almost inevitable after Maryland’s Diandra Tchatchourang missed two free throws with 7.2 seconds left and the score 61-60. Wright corraled the rebound and started dribbling upcourt.
With Maryland players scrambling back on defense, she had a lane to the basket. But Ryan, before the free throws, had instructed her players to call time out after Tchatchourang’s shots, and the game halted when Wright crossed over midcourt.
“I just felt like that was the best decision,” Ryan said. “I think that [UVa’s players] agreed. I didn’t know who would get the rebound or who would get the ball, so I just decided to bring it to me. I don’t know if Moni could have kept going. I don’t know if she looked. I just think that the best shot was for us to bring it up and run a halfcourt play.”
Wright said: “I think we did decide in the timeout prior to that we were going to get the rebound and go across halfcourt and call time out, but that was if she had scored both baskets. I did see in transition their defense wasn’t set up, but to play it safe and go off what we had decided before, it [was] a better bet just to call that timeout.”
Virginia’s decision helped Maryland, which was able to set its defense, Frese said.
“Absolutely,” she said. “We knew the ball was going to go to Wright. It absolutely gave us time to be able to talk that through.”
After Wright caught the inbounds pass, she turned and found herself surrounded. “My first thought was to try to and go, and then I realized that there was another person coming toward me. Then I was just like, ‘Who can I dump it off to?’ But there wasn’t that many options with 3 seconds left, so I tried to go up and draw the foul.”
The officials’ whistles stayed quiet, and afterward Ryan didn’t dispute the no-call. The Cavaliers (0-2, 11-5) lost the game because of other factors, she said, particularly their poor defense on Maryland sharpshooter Lori Bjork (six 3-pointers).
On a night when Wright went 7 for 24 from the floor, Bjork was 7 for 12. Of course, she didn’t have to deal with the pressure that comes with chasing a school record.
As the ‘Hoos head into an extended break — their next game is Jan. 18 at Virginia Tech — Wright said she’s happy to have her historic night behind her. Her pursuit of Staley will no longer be such a popular topic, and she can focus solely on her team.
“Definitely a sense of relief,” she said.