By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Any game now could be her last as UVa women’s basketball coach.
Debbie Ryan knows it, and so does everyone else associated with her team. Her players’ goal: to extend the season as long as possible.
“I think as a team we just really want to send her off with a win,” junior guard Whitny Edwards said Tuesday. “We really want to end her career with a championship, and we know that we’re in complete control of that. So we’ve really taken it amongst ourselves to look at these last few games as: We want to win them for Coach, and we want to win them for all the coaches, because they’ll be leaving this year, and just for ourselves.”
Freshman guard Ataira Franklin said Ryan “puts her heart and soul into every practice, every game, and we just want to go out there and put that on the court.”
Ryan announced March 12 that she would step down at the end of this season, her 34th as UVa’s head coach. The Cavaliers did not earn an at-large invitation to the NCAA tournament, but they have won twice in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, and they’ll play their third-round game at John Paul Jones Arena.
UVa faces a familiar foe, and a formidable one. Virginia (18-15) hosts ACC rival Boston College (20-12) at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Each finished the regular season with a 5-9 record in ACC games, but in their only meeting, the Eagles embarrassed the Wahoos 73-50 on Feb. 20.
BC scored the game’s first 20 points that night at JPJ. UVa missed its first 13 shots from the floor and didn’t score until sophomore guard China Crosby’s layup dropped through with 10:19 to play in the first half.
“We are much better than we played that day,” Edwards said. “This is definitely a great revenge game for us, just to make a statement, because we didn’t give our best effort in the first game, and that’s not what Virginia’s about. And this time we get a chance to really show them what this program is about.”
To advance to the WNIT quarterfinals, the ‘Hoos must limit the effectiveness of BC post players Carolyn Swords and Stefanie Murphy. Swords, a 6-6 center, and Murphy, a 6-4 power forward, scored 14 points apiece, most coming on layups. But UVa can’t ignore Eagles guard Kerri Shields, who made five 3-pointers at JPJ.
“I think with [the Eagles] you just have to be physical,” Edwards said. “We know that after they beat us they went to NC State, which is a much smaller team than us, and NC State was really physical with them and took them out of their game.”
The NCAA women’s tournament began last weekend, and JPJ was the site of two first-round games Sunday and a second-round game Tuesday. As UVa’s players practiced for the WNIT, they were not oblivious to what was taking place elsewhere in the arena.
“It’s definitely an odd feeling, just seeing all the NCAA tournament stuff here and [knowing] we’re not in it,” Edwards said. “It’s definitely exciting for the other teams, but I wish that we would have got a chance to play in it this year, being that it’s here. But the NIT is a great experience for us as well.
“Just to get another postseason tournament, it’s really great for us in building for next year.”
Virginia starts only one senior: 5-8 guard Paulisha Kellum (6.6 ppg). The Cavaliers’ other senior, forward Jayna Hartig, has played only 83 minutes this season, so Ryan’s successor will inherit a deep, experienced team. Returning players will include Edwards’ twin, Britny, a 6-1 forward who is redshirting this season.
“I think everybody’s on the same page as far as next year,” Whitny Edwards said. “We know these games are tournament games, we’re playing some really good teams, and just getting some wins under our belt will really help us for next year with our confidence and everything.”
In the WNIT’s second round, Virginia whipped Loyola 71-49 in Baltimore. UVa opened the tournament at home last week with a 69-56 win over Morgan State. Ryan received several standing ovations from the crowd at JPJ, and afterward she talked about her emotions.
“It’s just really hard,” Ryan said “It’s hard to coach right now. It’s hard to do everything right now. I love these kids sitting next to me. I love my players, and I love the people I coach with, and I love everything about this place.”
A deep run in the WNIT, Ryan said she told her players before the opener, would “give me a chance to stay a little longer with them. That’s been kind of our rallying cry. We really want to stay together as long as we possibly can.”
Virginia’s underclassmen can’t help but think about the future. They know the hiring of a new coach is imminent, but they have questions that won’t be answered until Ryan’s successor is on Grounds.
“It’s exciting, but it’s also kind of bewildering, because we don’t know who’s going to come in and don’t know what the program is going to be like,” Edwards said. “But of course I’m excited to play my last year, and I know whoever’s going to come here is going to be a great coach, and with great assistant coaches, and it’ll be a really good experience.”