By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Her 1,063rd game as the University of Virginia women’s basketball team’s head coach was also Debbie Ryan’s last in that position. And when it ended, after her team’s spirited comeback fell short against Charlotte, Ryan took the microphone to address the fans who were on their feet and applauding her at John Paul Jones Arena.
“This has been a great, great experience for me,” Ryan told the crowd. “This is part of the fabric of who I am.”
Since taking over as head coach before the 1977-78 season, Ryan has been the face of UVa women’s basketball. Her teams won 739 games, and late in the second half Saturday night, after the Cavaliers cut a 16-point deficit to two, it appeared Ryan might get to 740, with an opportunity to win as many as two more.
But Charlotte steadied itself and made enough plays in the final 125 seconds to secure a 79-74 victory in this Women’s National Invitation Tournament quarterfinal. The 49ers (27-9) move on to face Syracuse or Toledo in the WNIT semifinals.
UVa, in its 34th and final season under Ryan, finished with a 19-16 record.
“We just tried to play our butts off for her,” sophomore point guard China Crosby said. “Of course it was in the back of our heads that we have to play hard, because of what she gave to his program, and her legacy, and we [wanted to] end it strong for her.
Ryan noticed. Her players “didn’t want this to end either, but it did,” she said. “And so now we do have to deal with it.”
Athletics director Craig Littlepage announced March 12 that Ryan had decided to step down at season’s end. Two days later, UVa accepted an invitation to play in the WNIT.
“It’s just been really a hard, hard, hard two weeks,” Ryan said. “Because you want to do your best for [the players], and yet you’re not quite yourself.”
The Wahoos opened the WNIT by beating Morgan State at JPJ, then defeated Loyola (Md.) in a second-round game in Baltimore.
In the third round, UVa avenged a regular-season loss to an ACC rival by beating Boston College 53-48. Against Charlotte, however, the Cavaliers found themselves facing a talented, athletic foe that in senior Shannon McCallum has an exceptional guard.
With 8 minutes left in the first half Saturday night, UVa led 21-18. But the 49ers responded with seven straight points and never trailed again.
“I thought that they really, really played well,” Ryan said. “We didn’t have the answer for a couple of their players.”
McCallum finished with a game-high 25 points, and another Charlotte guard, Epiphany Woodson, added 17.
For Virginia, Crosby was magnificent. She made 8 of 12 points from the floor, including 3 for 4 from beyond the arc, and scored a career-high 25 points. She also had 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 blocked shot and only 1 turnover.
Crosby missed UVa’s final 18 games in 2009-10 with a torn ACL. She re-injured the same knee in Virginia’s opener this season and missed the next nine games. But as her health improved this season, her production increased.
Never at Virginia has the former McDonald’s All-American looked better than she did Saturday night.
“That’s exactly the kind of player China can be, 24/7,” Ryan said. “She’s really at this point just beginning to get healthy. She’s really feeling good about herself now, but it’s taken the entire year to get to this point where she has a lot of confidence in that leg and is able to do what she can do.”
Also scoring in double figures for Virginia were freshman guard Ataira Franklin (13 points), senior guard Paulisha Kellum (12) and junior guard Ariana Moorer (10).
For Kellum and the team’s other senior, forward Jayna Hartig, this was their finale as Cavaliers, too. They’re leaving a program that, during Ryan’s tenure, made 24 trips to the NCAA tournament, including three Final Four appearances.
The ‘Hoos reached the NCAA championship game in 1991, losing in overtime to Tennessee. Ryan was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
Another member is former Texas coach Jody Conradt. Charlotte coach Karen Aston spent eight years on Conradt’s staff at Texas.
“I have a great understanding of legends,” Aston said Saturday night, “and I want to commend [Ryan] for what she’s done for women’s basketball.”
Win or lose Saturday night, Ryan’s team would not have played at JPJ again this season. The arena is not available for basketball during the remainder of the WNIT.
And so Ryan knew this would be her final home game as UVa’s coach. She did her best not to dwell on that as tipoff approached Saturday.
“I tried to block that out, because I don’t really think like that as a coach,” Ryan said. “I try to stay focused on the task at hand and not on me.”
Her assistants include Wendy Palmer, who was a two-time All-American at UVa in the 1990s. Palmer walked off the court with Ryan on Saturday night.
“I can’t tell you how incredibly humbled I am by the way my former players, and my present players, have embraced me,” Ryan said. “They have been absolutely amazing, and I’ve been so proud to be a part of my former staffs, my former players, just everybody that’s ever been here for me.
“Whether they played for me, or they played for Dan Bonner or they played for Barbara Kelly, everybody’s a family here, and they just rallied around me. Every day there was four or five people calling, just to be sure I was OK. I just can’t tell you how humbled I am by that. It’s amazing to me how they’ve been.”