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By Jeff White

Sometime in the next three weeks, Debbie Ryan’s remarkable run as University of Virginia women’s basketball coach will end.

It began on Nov. 28, 1977, with a 54-48 win over Virginia Union at University Hall. It will conclude, Ryan hopes, with a WNIT championship on April 2.

Ryan will step down as coach when the season ends, UVa athletics director Craig Littlepage announced Saturday in a news release that is posted on

She will stay in Charlottesville, Ryan said in the release, and “choose an area of the University that fits my skills. The Emily Couric Cancer Treatment Center is of particular interest to me, but I have not settled on anything yet.”

Ryan is a cancer survivor whose battle with pancreatic cancer, with which she was diagnosed in 2000, has inspired countless other patients.

As UVa’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, noted in the release Saturday, Ryan is an iconic figure in the sport. In her 34 seasons as the Cavaliers’ head coach — Ryan was an assistant to Dan Bonner for two years before that — she has compiled a 736-323 record, with 24 trips to the NCAA tournament, including three Final Four appearances.

The Wahoos, who were upset in the ACC tournament’s first round on March 3, are one game above .500, at 16-15, and will not be invited to the NCAAs this year. Virginia is expected to compete in the WNIT for the third time in six seasons.

“I am not retiring per se,” Ryan said in the release, “but I feel we have not lived up to my own standards and expectations this past year and I want to do what is best for our program and the University.”

She is one of nine active Division I women’s coaches with at least 700 victories. Ryan has been named ACC coach of the year seven times and was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in July 2008.

At UVa, she has coached such greats as Val Ackerman, Donna Holt, Cathy Grimes, Dawn Staley, Tammi Reiss, Tonya Cardoza, Wendy Palmer and Monica Wright.

“More than anything I love my players, both past and present,” Ryan said in the release, “and that is what I will miss the most about leaving.”

A national search for UVa’s next coach has begun. Ryan’s successor will be asked to elevate a program that, from a national perspective, has steadily declined over the past decade.

There was a time when the ‘Hoos ranked among the nation’s elite in this sport. Virginia reached the NCAA semifinals in 1990 and advanced to the championship game a year later, losing in overtime to Tennessee in New Orleans.

In 1992, the Cavaliers made a third consecutive Final Four appearance, and they reached the NCAA quarterfinals in ’93, ’95 and ’96. But UVa has not advanced to even the Sweet Sixteen since 2000.

The Cavaliers have not won the ACC tournament since 1993. The most recent of Ryan’s 11 ACC regular-season titles came in 2000. The ‘Hoos have lost 18 consecutive games to Duke, and over the past 10 seasons their record in conference games is 74-71.

In 2010, Virginia entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed but lost to No. 12 seed Wisconsin-Green Bay in the first round.

Replacing a Hall of Fame coach in any sport can be challenging, but Ryan’s successor will walk into an attractive situation. The ‘Hoos have a rich tradition in women’s hoops, a first-class home in John Paul Jones Arena, and a roster that is likely to return almost intact in 2011-12.

The Cavaliers have only two seniors. Guard Paulisha Kellum has started all 31 games and averages 6.6 points and 2.5 assists, but forward Jayna Hartig is not in the rotation and averages only 0.5 points.

Players who will have eligibility remaining after this season include the team’s top four scorers — Ariana Moorer, Ataira Franklin, Chelsea Shine and Whitny Edwards — as well as point guard China Crosby, a McDonald’s All-American in high school.

Early this month, Moorer was named the ACC’s sixth player of the year, and Franklin was named to the ACC’s all-freshman team.

Moreover, the recruits who signed with Virginia in November include guard Bria Smith, a McDonald’s All-American from Christ the King High School in Queens, N.Y.

UVa is centrally located in a state that regularly produces elite college prospects. Ryan and her staff persuaded Wright, a McDonald’s All-American at Forest Park High, to choose Virginia, but many other blue-chip recruits have opted to leave the state in recent years.

Duke senior Jasmine Thomas, a two-time all-ACC selection, is from Fairfax. Kristi Toliver, who as a Maryland senior in 2009 was named ACC player of the year, is from Harrisonburg. One of Maryland’s current stars, Lynetta Kizer, is from Woodbridge, and North Carolina center Chay Shegog is from Stafford.

In the Pac-10, Doreena Campbell, a four-year starter at guard for UCLA, is from Alexandria. The Bruins are 27-3 this season.

Virginia’s next coach will be asked to lure more of that talent to Charlottesville. If Ryan’s successor succeeds in doing so, UVa may find itself in the national-championship picture again.

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