By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The NCAA women’s basketball tournament is coming to John Paul Jones Arena in March. That much is clear. It’s too early to project whether UVa will play in that tourney.

Final exams begin Thursday at Virginia, and Debbie Ryan’s team enters the break with a 6-4 record. That’s not particularly impressive, but consider this: UVa’s losses were to teams ranked No. 6 (Ohio State), No. 7 (Tennessee), No. 9 (West Virginia) and No. 15 (Iowa State), respectively, in the latest ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll.

Moreover, the Cavaliers have had sophomore point guard China Crosby for all of 18 minutes this season. Crosby, who as a 12th-grader was a McDonald’s All-American, injured her left knee in the Nov. 12 opener at Hofstra and hasn’t played since. That’s the same knee in which she tore the anterior cruciate ligament early last January, an injury that sidelined Crosby, a starter, for the rest of her freshman season.

Crosby is likely to be cleared in the next week to return to practice, Ryan said, and she’ll be a welcome addition to a group still in search of an identity. Ryan admits that she has yet to get a good read on her 34th team at UVa.

“At times I feel like we’ve learned a lot, and at times I feel like we’ve learned nothing,” Ryan said Monday night after Virginia awoke from a long slumber to rip Radford 76-52 at JPJ.

“But I think that we’ve learned how to turn it around when we don’t really have it. I think we’ve learned how to play against very good competition and that we’re not that far away. We have to get certain things in order to be where we need to be, but we are definitely going in the right direction, and I think that we found a leader in Chelsea Shine, and she seems to be very consistent in her leadership, though today in the first half she didn’t lead, and I reminded her that whether she’s playing well or not, she still has to lead.”

Shine, a junior forward, got the message. After going scoreless in the first half, she finished with 12 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 assists.

“We found a good leader in Chelsea, and I think that the team is developing,” Ryan said. “It’s just going to take a little time, and hopefully we’ll get China back, and it’ll give us a lot more in terms of more transition points, which is what we really need and sort of thrive on.”

For the season, Shine is averaging 10.2 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds. She’s one of the Wahoos’ captains, along with Paulisha Kellum and Jayna Hartig. They’re trying to fill the leadership void created by the departure of All-America guard Monica Wright.

“It’s tough,” Shine said. “I was so thankful to be able to watch and grow the first two years behind Moni and soak in all of her leadership skills. My role’s a little different. I’m not Monica Wright. Leadership is going to speak in different ways with me than it would have with her, or with [Kellum] or with Jayna.

“I got called out a little bit today, and rightfully so, because I kind of let the energy go a bit in the first half, and just because I’m not playing well doesn’t mean that I stop leading this team or stop leading myself or anyone else.”

The crowd of 2,799 on Monday night included an NCAA representative who was in town to check out JPJ. In the upcoming NCAA tourney, the University will host two first-round games on March 20 and a second-round matchup on March 22.

The Cavaliers are trying to advance to the NCAAs for the 25th time in Ryan’s tenure. Asked to assess where the team stands 10 games in, Shine said, “I think we’re tired a little bit, but I also think that we’ve come a long way and had a lot of great experiences that we are going to learn from, both losses and wins.

“Playing five nationally ranked teams” — Virginia beat then-No. 21 TCU at the Paradise Jam last month — “in this first half of the season is huge. We’ve gained so much from that and have really been forced to kind of grow up as a team, grow close as a team.

“We’ve been really exposed at times, but we’ve also seen where we’re really good. And I think that’s what we’re getting out of this experience. These next two weeks, I think it’s going to be some good down time. We’re going to study, get these exams out of the way, and then kind of almost come in fresh for this next half of the season after break.”

The only seniors in the program are Kellum and Hartig. Virginia has three freshmen: 5-11 guard Ataira Franklin, 5-10 guard Kelsey Wolfe and 6-1 forward Jazmin Pitts.

Against Radford, Wolfe and Pitts played only four minutes apiece. Franklin had a larger role. In her second straight start, the resident of Bowie, Md., contributed 10 points and 6 rebounds, both career highs.

“The one thing I get from Ataira every day is consistency,” Ryan said. “She’s a very consistent player. She gives me great defense. She has long arms. She bothers people, and she knows her role. She’s developing an offensive identity right now, as any first-year would. But she really understands the game. She’s a very good glue player. She’s a very good utility-type player, and she really understands what I need her to do, and she goes out there and does it, every single day. Not just in games, but in practice, too.”

Pitts, a graduate of Cosby High in Chesterfield County, pulled down 17 rebounds at Hofstra. Wolfe, The Washington Post’s All-Metro girls player of the year for Seneca Valley High (Germantown, Md.) in 2009-10, had 12 points and 10 boards in that game. But both lag behind Franklin defensively and in consistency of effort and focus.

“They have to realize that they can’t come to a game and not be ready to play,” Ryan said, “because then it makes the coach think the next time: ‘Why should I play them, if they weren’t ready to play?’

“I think that Kelsey is going to be a player that can really help us down the road, I just think that right now she’s got to get better defensively. It’s a little overwhelming this time of the year for the first-years. First of all, we’ve just played five nationally ranked teams, three in the top 10. That can be a little overwhelming for a first-year. Then all the academic stuff as well. They’ll come along, though.”

The best player on the court Monday night was UVa sophomore Lexie Gerson. The 5-11 guard from Fort Washington, Pa., was in perpetual motion as she filled the box score with a career-high 19 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals and 4 turnovers in 36 minutes. She was 3 for 5 from beyond the 3-point arc.

Through 10 games, Gerson has scored in double figures five times. In the other games she’s finished with 8, 2, 3, 5 and 8 points, respectively. She knows she needs to become more consistent.

“I think it’s more of a mental thing, actually,” Gerson said after the Radford game. “I’m trying to work on my mental game right now. Just trying to let the game come to me more instead of trying to force things, which I tend to do. Today I kind of let things flow more, and it helped our team.”

UVa doesn’t play again until Dec. 18, when Maryland-Baltimore County visits JPJ. By then, the ‘Hoos may have a better sense of what kind of team they will be this season.

“It’s definitely an ongoing process,” Gerson said. “We’re trying to make our identity, but I don’t think we’ve established it quite yet.”

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