By Jeff White
AMES, Iowa — For her teammates, the future may hold more trips to the NCAA tournament. For Monica Wright, the lone senior on the UVa women’s basketball team, this is it.
If the Cavaliers need extra motivation, they can find it there. Any game now could be Wright’s last as a collegian, and her teammates want to extend the 5-11 guard’s career as long as possible.
“It’s what Moni deserves,” sophomore forward Chelsea Shine said Saturday afternoon at Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum. “She deserves to go out at least making the Sweet 16.”
UVa’s roster includes two other players who entered the University with Wright in 2006: forward Jayna Hartig and guard Paulisha Kellum. Both redshirted, though, and have another season of eligibility left.
“Knowing this is Monica’s last year and last chance, we’re going to play our hearts out,” Kellum said.
Four teams will play at the Hilton Coliseum on Sunday. Fifth-seeded UVa (21-9) meets No. 12 seed Wisconsin-Green Bay (27-4) at 7:21 p.m. (ET), with fourth-seeded Iowa State (23-7) and No. 13 seed Lehigh (29-3) to follow.
The Phoenix is the first team from the Horizon League to receive an at-large invitation to the NCAA tourney. In three seasons under Matt Bollant, Green Bay is 82-14, with a trip to the NCAAs each year.
Her players may not have known much about the Phoenix before the NCAA pairings were announced last week, but UVa coach Debbie Ryan has done plenty of teaching since then. She saw what happened to Virginia in the ACC tournament. Sixth-seeded N.C. State eliminated third-seeded UVa 66-59.
“N.C. State wasn’t a national team either,” Ryan said Saturday, “and [UVa’s players] made the mistake of maybe not respecting them as much as they should have. I think that this team now, if they haven’t learned that, then they’re not going to learn it, so it would be the end of their season.
“It’s been drilled into them, and it’s been made very clear to them, that there will be, as you heard Monica say today, no looking ahead. There will be none of that. Because you better be playing possession by possession, or you’re going home.
“Anybody can beat anybody. This is a very good Green Bay team. They’ve won 56 games in the last two years, and if you don’t pay attention to that and you don’t respect that, then there’s something wrong with you.”
UVa hasn’t played since its March 5 loss to the Wolfpack in Greensboro, N.C. In that game, Wright, the ACC player of the year, scored 32 points, well more than half of her team’s total. For the season, she’s averaging 23.3 points, well ahead of the Wahoos’ second-leading scorer, Shine (8.1).
Still, Ryan said she has confidence in Wright’s supporting cast.
The N.C. State game was “a one-time thing,” Ryan said, “and all year long she’s been getting help from different people at different times. It’s not like we’re worried about that, because we know that other people on this team can score. We know that other people on this team can rebound and defend as well. We just did not have a good day that day. We just have to be sure that this team is focused and ready to play and ready to do what they do.”
Bollant said his team can’t overlook the other Cavaliers. That Wright is the Phoenix’s biggest concern, however, is unquestioned.
“I told our players, ‘She’s probably the best player you’ll play against,’ ” Bollant said. “There were several times this week where I rewound clips and thought she’s as explosive as anybody we’ve seen. With her ability to get to the rim and make plays, what she does is truly special.”
With 2,506 career points, Wright is Virginia’s all-time leading scorer. She ranks third in ACC history.
“We have to try to limit her,” Bollant said. “As a coach there are different strategies. Do you let her go and try to limit the other players, or do you try to take her away? Nobody has really been able to take her away.”
Green Bay placed two players on the all-Horizon first team — 5-7 guard Celeste Hoewisch and 6-0 wing Kayla Tetschlag — and another on the second team (6-0 wing Julie Wojta). Sarah Eichler, a 5-11 freshman, made the Horizon’s all-newcomer team.
The Phoenix starts no one taller than 6-0, but it’s a much-better shooting team than UVa. Four Cavaliers have made at least 14 treys apiece this season. Green Bay has seven players who have hit at least 15.
“I don’t think that we’ve played anybody that has everything that they have,” Ryan said. “We play against a lot of teams during the year that have a lot of different styles. I would say maybe South Dakota State, which we played in the Bahamas, is probably the most like them, but I think that they have more weapons than South Dakota State had.”
This is the Cavaliers’ 24th appearance in the NCAA tournament in their 33 seasons under Ryan. The ‘Hoos won their first-round game in 2008 and again in ’09, but they haven’t advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2000.
“As a team I feel like we understand our history and what we’ve done in the past,” Wright said. “We look at this year as definitely a great opportunity to make it further. But we’ve been drilling a certain mentality into ourselves that we want to take it game by game and possession by possession and not look too far in the future.”