By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Starting March 30, John Paul Jones Arena will host Cirque du Soleil for five consecutive days. That adds extra significance to what will take place Saturday night at JPJ.
At 7 o’clock, UVa (19-15) hosts Charlotte (26-9) in the quarterfinals of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. No matter how Debbie Ryan’s team fares Saturday night, that will be her final home game as Virginia’s coach.
The WNIT semifinals are March 30 and 31, and the championship game is April 2. John Paul Jones Arena would not be available for basketball any of those days.
“We weren’t planning to be in this tournament,” Ryan said Thursday night after UVa’s third-round win over ACC rival Boston College.
“It’s not the fault of the arena, it’s not the fault of anybody’s scheduling. It’s just the way it is. We have to do it this way, and if we have to do it this way, so be it.”
The Cavaliers’ goal was to play in the NCAA tournament, as they did in 24 of Ryan’s first 33 seasons as their coach. Had they made a deep run in the ACC tourney, the Wahoos might have earned an at-large invitation to the NCAAs, but a first-round loss to Wake Forest on March 3 eliminated that possibility.
Nine days later, UVa athletics director Craig Littlepage announced that Ryan had decided to step down at season’s end. Three games into the WNIT, Ryan is not ready for that day to arrive. Neither are her players.
“We’re playing for something more,” junior guard Ariana Moorer said Thursday night after UVa held off Boston College 53-48 at JPJ.
“We’re playing for this woman right here, Debbie Ryan. She means a lot to us, and we want her here as long as possible, her and the staff.”
Asked about having at least one more game to coach with the Cavaliers, Ryan smiled.
“I just don’t have to move out of my office yet,” she said. “I’m real excited for the team. It means everything to me. They know how much this means to me. I want to stay with them. They’re my girls, and I just think this is great, and I have nobody to thank but them and my staff. They’ve just been terrific through this whole tournament so far.”
The ‘Hoos were anything but terrific on Feb. 20. That’s when Boston College came into JPJ and humbled UVa 73-50. The Eagles scored the game’s first 20 points and were never threatened thereafter.
The rematch bore no resemblance to that rout. The Cavaliers were the first team to 20 this time, and they led 28-24 at the break, thanks in large part to Moorer, who scored the final eight points of the half. Her flurry included back-to-back three-point plays.
“I give a lot of credit to Virginia,” BC coach Sylvia Crawley said. “They came out and fought hard. This was a battle tonight.”
Ryan said her players “had a lot of energy in the locker room, and they were really ready to go. They kind of have their own agenda at this point.”
In the teams’ regular-season meeting, the Eagles’ twin towers, 6-6 Carolyn Swords and 6-4 Stefanie Murphy, combined for 28 points and 14 rebounds. Both played well again Thursday night, combining for 35 points and 20 boards, but BC’s starting guards were a combined 4 for 27 from the floor.
“We really worked on pressuring their guards a lot better than we did in the last game,” Ryan said, “We played things a lot better, a little simpler than we played the last time, and we were able to take advantage of our defense at the offensive end.”
Moorer said: “That was the plan from the get-go: pressure, pressure, pressure. And I think me and China, along with Ataira and other guards, did very well with that tonight.”
Sophomore point guard China Crosby had 3 steals, along with 9 points and 2 blocked shots. Moorer came off the bench to score a team-high 15 points and had 2 steals. Franklin, a freshman, contributed 9 points, 10 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Virginia led by nine with 3:10 to play. BC rallied behind Swords and Murphy, and with 32 seconds left UVa’s lead was only two, 50-48. But the ‘Hoos hit 3 of 4 from the line in the final 26 seconds to set up a date with Charlotte, which beat visiting Florida 81-77 in overtime Thursday night.
That the game will be at JPJ means Saturday night will be especially taxing for Ryan. She has struggled with her emotions more at home than on the road this postseason.
The crowd of 1,389 at JPJ stood and applauded her entrance and her exit Thursday.
“The fans have been just unbelievable for me,” Ryan said. “I’m giving it all I have. I just think that it’s a little bit tougher at home than it is on the road.
“It’s so heartfelt, and the spirit of this program are these fans. They have come with us through thick and thin, and I’m just really proud to be a part of it. I really am.”
Even the officials paid tribute to Ryan, hugging her before the game. That was a first for her, said Ryan, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in July 2008.
“Everybody involved in women’s basketball is so close,” Ryan said. “It’s a niche sport, and it’s just amazing the heartfelt greetings that I’ve gotten everywhere I’ve gone and how people have been so kind to me, the officials included.”
Crawley, who’s in her third season as BC’s coach, played at North Carolina in the early ’90s. She said she considers Ryan a mentor.
“I think she’s leaving a great legacy here,” Crawley said. “She can walk away just feeling proud of what she fought for and what she helped to do. I think to do what she’s done and win the amount of games that she’s won over her career — a young coach like me can only aspire to that.”