By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The award that Monica Wright received last Thursday — ACC player of the year in women’s basketball — eclipsed the one she’d collected a day earlier.
Or did it? The freshly crowned ACC defensive player of the year might disagree.
“That’s kind of been more of a goal of mine than the player-of-the-year award,” Wright said Tuesday morning.
“I pride myself on being someone that my team can count on to stop the other team’s best player when we need it. So I was definitely proud of that and happy that all my hard work defensively has paid off.”
The 5-11 guard from Woodbridge is the focal point of every opponent’s scouting report — Wright is the only UVa player averaging more than 8.1 points — but that hasn’t stopped her from having a storybook senior season.
Wright leads the ACC in scoring (23.3 ppg) and steals (3.6), and she’s second in free-throw percentage (81). She’s averaging 6.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists.
In January, Wright passed Dawn Staley to become UVa’s all-time leading scorer. With 2,506 points, she’s now third on the ACC’s career list.
“Monica has been everything to us,” Cavaliers coach Debbie Ryan said. “She scores, defends, rebounds, steals the ball. She’s one of the most complete players I’ve ever coached. She is an amazing physical specimen. She is a fast, gifted athlete who is as good of a leader as she is a player. She’s an amazing package, and I’m very, very fortunate to have her on my team.”
The ACC first named a defensive player of the year in women’s basketball in 2005. Wright is the first Cavalier to win the award.
“I’ve always been kind of a defensive-minded player,” she said. “I always take pride in my defense, and it’s kind of what fuels my offense. When I got the award, I was just really excited.”
She’s the first Cavalier to be named ACC player of the year since Wendy Palmer in 1996. Palmer is now one of UVa’s assistant coaches, and she was quick to congratulate the team’s All-America candidate.
“She’s proud of me and everything,” Wright said.
So is the UVa community. Wright’s main concern last week, however, was the ACC tournament at Greensboro, N.C.
“You know, I’m really not too big on big scenes and everything,” she said. “I’d rather everyone just focus on the game, rather than making a big deal about my award.”
N.C. State upset Virginia in the quarterfinals, but Wright did her part, and then some. She finished with 32 points, 7 rebounds and 5 steals in the Wahoos’ 66-59 loss.
Extraordinary performances have become routine for Wright. This is a player, after all, who has career highs of 39 points (vs. Boston College on Jan. 21, 2010), 16 rebounds (vs. JMU on Dec. 6, 2009), 7 assists (vs. Furman on Dec. 8, 2009) and a school-record 10 steals (vs. Liberty on Dec. 29, 2009).
Ten times this season Wright has had at least 5 steals in a game.
“In order for me to do well offensively,” she said, “I feel like my defense has to warm me up first. Like in the beginning of the game, I usually don’t start the game off with points. I usually start it off with locking down somebody on defense or getting a steal.
“That’s what fuels my offense. It’s always been my favorite since I was young. That’s why I was more excited about [the ACC’s defensive award].”
The season has taken a physical toll on Wright, who leads UVa in minutes played (956). Opponents know that if they can shut her down, the ‘Hoos will struggle, and so Wright usually draws the other team’s best defender.
She’s still standing, though, and still dominating. For that she credits the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach, Ed Nordenschild, and its athletic trainer, Paul Murata.
“In preseason, Ed prepares us,” Wright said. “He continuously gives us mental challenges, and if we’re mentally able to overcome fatigue with Ed, then we’re going to be mentally able to overcome fatigue in the ACC, the ACC tournament, the NCAA tournament, regardless of where we are, because Ed’s prepared us.”
Murata “just keeps me healthy, keeps my body fresh,” said Wright, whose regimen includes visits to the cold tub in the JPJ training room and massages to work out her soreness.
“He’s working with me, because I’m an old grandma now,” Wright, 21, said with a laugh. “He has definitely been like my best friend at the end of this season.”
It’s spring break at UVa, and Ryan gave the team a couple of days off. Wright headed home Tuesday morning to Woodbridge for a quick visit with her family. She’ll be back Thursday to resume workouts with her teammates.
She’s fully aware that she’s in the twilight of her college career. Any game now could be her last as a Cavalier.
The ‘Hoos (21-9) will learn Monday where they’re headed in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s definitely something that’s helping me understand how much urgency I need and how much I need to be pushing my teammates,” Wright said. “It puts into perspective everything.”
The NCAA tourney is “really important to me. I really want to go out with a bang, I really want my team to do well, and I just really want to do this for Debbie. She’s been in it for 30-something years, and she just needs to get back to what she was.”