By Jeff White
AMES, Iowa — In a silent locker room a thousand miles from Charlottesville, players and coaches stared numbly at the floor, replaying a game that went horribly wrong for the UVa women’s basketball team.
The Cavaliers’ season ended with a first-round loss at Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum, and so did Monica Wright’s wondrous college career. The senior guard deserved better in her final NCAA tournament.
But basketball can be a cruel game, and Wright couldn’t do it alone against 12th-seeded Wisconsin-Green Bay. For a team that had been awarded a No. 5 seed in the NCAAs and dreamed of advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000, the ACC player of the year totaled 34 points, 9 rebounds, 6 steals and 1 blocked shot.
In most games that would have been enough to assure victory for the Wahoos, but not Sunday night.
Take away sophomore guard Whitny Edwards, who scored 9 points on 4-for-8 shooting, and the Cavaliers not named Wright were a combined 7 for 32 from the floor in the 69-67 loss to the Phoenix, which led by 15 with 12 minutes left.
For the second straight game, Wright scored more than half of her team’s points. She had 32 in third-seeded Virginia’s 66-59 loss to sixth-seeded N.C. State in an ACC tournament quarterfinal March 5.
“You could see tonight that she was not gonna die, she was not gonna go down, she put everything she had into it,” UVa coach Debbie Ryan said. “And I just am not sure that everybody else was on the same page until the last 11 minutes, and once we got on the same page, I don’t want to say it was too late, but it was almost too late.”
The Phoenix, the first Horizon League team to receive an at-large invitation to the NCAAs, didn’t make a field goal in the final 12 minutes, 13 seconds, as its lead steadily dwindled. Matt Bollant’s team committed a season-high 30 turnovers, with 19 coming in the second half against UVa’s suffocating pressure.
Yet somehow Green Bay (28-4) held on, aided immensely by Virginia’s inability to convert shots around the basket and at the line.
“In my opinion, we shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place,” Wright said. “We know what we had to do to win this game, and we made it hard on ourselves. As we did chip away, despite our mistakes, it was encouraging to know that we could come back from that deficit, but at the same time, to work that hard and not come out with the win is very disappointing.”
On a night when the Phoenix sank 34 of 40 free throws, Virginia made only 15 of 23. During a 2½-minute stretch late in the game, with Green Bay on the verge of collapse, the Cavaliers missed 6 of 8 free throws.
“We left too many points on the floor tonight,” Ryan said. “We had several opportunities to really get the lead at the free-throw line, and we didn’t do it. That’s the shame of it: that we are normally a really good free-throw shooting team, and we left points on the floor, and that was really discouraging to me.”
The game ended with Ryan screaming at the officials. With four-tenths of a second left and the score 69-67, Green Bay’s Sarah Eichler had gone to the line for two shots. She missed the first. After Eichler missed the second on purpose, Wright grabbed the rebound and called time out.
The clock showed all zeros, but the officials conferred and then reset it to two-tenths of a seconds. That’s long enough, the rules say, for a player to tip the ball into the basket, but not to catch and shoot.
Junior guard Paulisha Kellum, inbounding the ball on the baseline closest to Green Bay’s basket, threw a long baseball-style pass to Wright, who was on the right wing near UVa’s 3-point line. Wright leaped to catch the ball and quickly put up a shot that missed and, according to the officials, wouldn’t have counted anyway.
“We already knew that all she could do was tip it, but there were three players standing around her,” Ryan said. “She went up, and before the ball even got there, I thought there was contact, but that’s not my call. It’s theirs.”
Wright, for her part, didn’t complain about the no-call.
“You’re going to feel contact,” she said. “The refs did the best job they can do in that situation. It shouldn’t have come down to that in my opinion. It’s just a difficult call to make if you were going to make one, but the entire game they did a great job.”
The smaller Phoenix finished the game with a 43-35 advantage in rebounding, and the Wahoos had to work furiously after intermission to make the margin that close. Green Bay outrebounded UVa 23-11 in the first half.
“They just hustled and got every loose ball,” Whitny Edwards said.
Even so, Virginia (21-10) dominated the game’s first 10 minutes. At the 10:05 mark, Edwards’ jumper made it 20-11, and the ‘Hoos appeared to have too much size, too muck quickness and too much Wright for the Phoenix.
But when Wright went to the bench for a quick rest, Green Bay began asserting itself. She re-entered the game and converted a three-point play to put Virginia up 23-17, but the Phoenix answered with an 11-0 run.
With 5:19 left in the half, Kayla Tetschlag’s two free throws made it 24-23, and the Phoenix never relinquished the lead. And so Green Bay moves on to meet fourth-seeded Iowa State in a second-round game Tuesday night at Hilton Coliseum.
For Wright, Virginia’s only senior, next up is the WNBA draft April 8. Virginia’s all-time leading scorer ended her college career with 2,540 points. She ranks third on the ACC’s career list.
“I don’t think that words could do justice to what Monica Wright has done for the University of Virginia or for me personally,” Ryan said. “She is a very, very special player and special person in my life and in the lives of all of our players and everyone at the University of Virginia.”
Wright said: “Playing at UVa was like the best four years of my life. I love my teammates, I love my coaching staff, I love everybody associated with the University.”
She paused to console an emotional Chelsea Shine, seated next to Wright at the postgame press conference, before continuing.
“It has been fun, and I learned a tremendous amount,” Wright said. “I grew up so much, and I just look forward to being able to see what these girls do next year.”
Green Bay took its largest lead with 16:01 left on a 3-pointer that made it 49-33. Virginia pulled to 51-41, only to see the Phoenix respond with five straight points. The last two came on a basket inside by Julie Wojta, and that turned out to be Green Bay’s last field goal.
The Cavaliers’ comeback began with a 3-pointer from Edwards. That made it 56-46 with 8:21 left, and UVa kept charging as the Phoenix’s mistakes mounted.
With four minutes left, it was a five-point game. With one minute left, Green Bay’s lead was only four, and after sophomore guard Ariana Moorer hit two free throws with 32 seconds remaining, UVa trailed by only a single point.
Green Bay hit five of its next six foul shots, however, to keep UVa at bay. The Cavaliers’ final points of 2009-10 came on a stickback by Wright with 1.9 seconds left.
“I think every kid was trying their best to keep her on the floor and to keep her out here and to keep her in Iowa for one more game, and it just didn’t work,” Ryan said.
“But like I told the team tonight, it was our privilege and our honor to have Monica Wright on our team. There’s been a lot of seniors that graduate and move on, but she’s going to be one that’s going to be remembered for a very long time for putting this program back on the map and back in the top 25 and back in the position that it’s in right now.”