By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — By the time UVa takes the court for its NCAA tournament opener, more than two weeks will have passed since Debbie Ryan’s basketball team played a game.
“It’s a long time to wait,” Ryan said. “It’s a very long time to wait. You just make the most of it.”
The Cavaliers (21-9) would not have had such an extended break, they know, if they had lasted longer at the ACC tournament.
In a March 5 quarterfinal at the Greensboro Coliseum, the third-seeded Wahoos fell 66-59 to sixth-seeded N.C. State. Against the Wolfpack, only All-America candidate Monica Wright (32 points) scored in double figures for UVa.
The next morning found the ‘Hoos back at John Paul Jones Arena, where they practiced hard.
“Coach Ryan is not letting us let up and settle for anything,” said Wright, the ACC player of the year.
“Obviously, she was unhappy about the way we finished [in Greensboro], and we all were. We understood completely that we needed to continue working, continue getting better and realize what was at stake. Just not physically get better, but mentally get better as a team.”
In most cases, Ryan said, “my philosophy is, when the game’s over, it all goes back in the box. It probably stayed out of the box [after the N.C. State loss] a little longer than the players would have liked, but we’re past that now, and we’re still going hard and doing the things we have to do to get ready, and I think our team has made some great strides.”
The ‘Hoos learned Monday night that they had earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAAs. That’s about what Ryan expected. She did not expect to have her team sent to Ames, Iowa, a city she’s never visited in her long and distinguished coaching career.
“That would have been the last place I thought we would go,” Ryan said. “When I saw everything come up the way that it did [during ESPN’s selection show], I thought Connecticut would be in Pittsburgh and we would be in Norfolk. But no such luck.”
For her part, Wright figured the Cavaliers might be sent to the West Coast for the second straight season. UVa lost to Cal in the NCAA tourney’s second round at Los Angeles last March.
“But wherever we are, I’m just glad that we’re there and just thankful for the seed and excited to get out there and make some noise,” said Wright, a senior guard from Woodbridge.
Virginia plays No. 12 seed Wisconsin-Green Bay (27-4) in the first round Sunday night in Ames. The winner will meet No. 4 seed Iowa State (23-7) or No. 14 seed Lehigh (29-3) in Tuesday’s second round.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Wisconsin-Green Bay,” Ryan said. “They’re a great program. They play well in the tournament every year. That’ll be a tough matchup for us, absolutely.”
Green Bay, of course, is the alma mater of UVa men’s coach Tony Bennett. The Phoenix received the Horizon League’s first-ever at-large invitation to the NCAA women’s tournament.
“That’s a tough draw, and they know how to play,” Bennett said. “But let’s go ‘Hoos on that one.”
The team that emerges victorious from Ames will head to Dayton, Ohio, for a third-round matchup, barring the upset of all upsets, with top-seeded Connecticut (33-0). The defending NCAA champion Huskies have won 72 games in a row.
Asked if this would be a bad season to face UConn, Ryan said, “This year, last year, what year does it matter? That’s not something you need to fear. That’s something that you need to really take a hold of, relish it, and hopefully if you get a chance to play UConn, you’re the team that upsets them. It’s been two years since they’ve lost, so they’re due.”
In her 33 years in Charlottesville, Ryan has guided the ‘Hoos to the NCAA tournament 24 times. For UVa’s all-time leading scorer, this will be her third — and final — appearance in the NCAAs.
“It’s do or die, it’s all or nothing, this being my last tournament,” said Wright, a senior guard from Woodbridge.
“I just hope that we come together as a team at the right time and we peak at the right time and we all realize what’s at stake and we all just continue to keep working hard throughout this week and get down to Iowa and make some noise and get to the Sweet Sixteen and give UConn a run for its money and be the first to knock them out.”