By Amy Mulligan
At a university and athletics program steeped in history, it takes a special student-athlete to be recognized as relevant in the current women’s college basketball landscape and a player that will stand the test of time against the illustrious superstars of Virginia’s past. Senior guard Monica Wright has done just that, breaking a 17-year-old scoring record while establishing herself as one of the best players in the country.
History collides with the present often when looking at Virginia women’s basketball. Head coach and Hall of Famer Debbie Ryan has been a part of the program since its infancy, and is in her 33rd year on the sidelines. She has coached every one of UVa’s All-Americans, and recruited Wright to Grounds four years ago to become the latest legend-in-the-making.
One of the greatest women’s college basketball players of all time, Dawn Staley, played for the Cavaliers from 1988-92 and left Virginia as the all-time leading scorer in school history with 2,135 points. Staley returned to her alma mater in the summer of 2009 to give the valedictory address on Grounds and maintains a close relationship with Ryan, her mentor.
Wendy Palmer, one of just four Cavaliers to have her jersey retired, was the first player in Virginia history to record 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. She returned to Virginia prior to the 2009-10 season as an assistant coach under Ryan.
Wright links the present to that illustrious past. She became the first Associated Press first team preseason All-American since Palmer in 1995-96. Palmer also represents the last All-American, the last Cavalier to have her jersey retired and the last Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year in Virginia history. It has been 13 years since those distinctions went to a Cavalier, and Wright could be the next player to earn those prestigious honors.
“Monica is a relentless, strong-willed player with great ability,” Palmer says. “It is a great honor to become the all-time leading scorer and it won’t happen to a better kid. She is so deserving and it is so rewarding for me to be able to help these younger players achieve greatness. I’m happy to be a part of it, and to be able to be here and witness it, because the kid works so hard. She’s a good, solid basketball player and she’s an even better person. And that’s what makes me smile to tell you the truth.”
She will leave Virginia as the Cavaliers all-time leading scorer. The historic event happened on Jan. 11, 2010 vs. Maryland. With a 3-pointer from the baseline, Wright surpassed Staley and took her place in UVa history.
“As a first year, I really thought I would take my time getting into the swing of things,” Wright says. “As time went on, I started scoring more and making more of an impact. Honestly, I guess you can look at breaking records as a pay-off. As long as you work hard, the results will take care of themselves. You get out of things what you put in. That’s my motto and it speaks for itself.”
Staley, now in her second season as the head coach of South Carolina, has been at the top of that list since graduating in 1992. A two-time Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA), Naismith and USBWA Player of the Year (1991 and 1992), Staley is synonymous with Virginia women’s basketball. A member of three NCAA Final Four teams, Staley went on to win three Olympic gold medals for the United States women’s basketball team at the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympic games. In 2004, she was elected by her peers to carry the flag and lead the entire U.S. delegation into the stadium at Opening Ceremonies in Athens, Greece.
“Breaking records is a good thing because it means women’s basketball is constantly growing and improving,” Staley says. “Monica Wright is a good player who works hard to do what the team needs to be successful. That’s the way I played during my career at Virginia, so it’s great that that type of player is overtaking my record.”
“I think Monica is one of the greatest players to ever play at Virginia,” Palmer says. “Her name will be forever etched into the history books and no one can take that away from her. And one day there will be another Moni Wright that will re-write those books.”
The next link the chain of events that makes up the rich tradition of Virginia women’s basketball will undoubtedly be Monica Wright’s career.
“To be associated with all of those great names is an honor,” Wright said. “It’s like when we played at Colorado, and their head coach is a UVa graduate (Kathy McConnell-Miller). Being around her for five minutes, I felt a connection with her. You could just tell she was a UVa women’s basketball player. That’s what’s so special about being part of this group.”