By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the first minute of UVa’s Dec. 20 game with JMU, point guard China Crosby went down with a season-ending knee injury. In that instant at John Paul Jones Arena, Ariana Moorer’s workload, already heavy on a short-handed basketball team, grew significantly.
Suddenly first-year coach Joanne Boyle had only one player with experience at the point: Moorer, who had been starting at shooting guard. Boyle has asked much of Moorer in Crosby’s absence, and the 5-7 senior from Woodbridge has delivered for the Cavaliers.
“She’s done it all for us,” Boyle said Tuesday. “She’s been a great floor general for us.”
Since Crosby suffered the second torn ACL of her college career, Moorer has logged at least 37 minutes in 15 games. She has played the full 40 minutes six times. In a double-overtime game with North Carolina, Moorer played 50 minutes.
“You don’t really prepare for anything like that,” Moorer said Tuesday. “You do make sure you’re in the best shape, but it’s mental, too. You have to stay positive with yourself, you have to push through fatigue, and injuries.
The ACC tournament begins today at the Greensboro Coliseum, and No. 6 seed UVa (21-9) will meet No. 11 seed Boston College (7-22) around 8 p.m. The Cavaliers went 9-7 in ACC play during the regular season, finishing in a tie for fifth with UNC, which won the tiebreaker.
“This team has been amazing this year,” Moorer said. “We’re confident. We’re excited. We want to be here. We want to work hard. We love our coaching staff, so it’s just really been a team effort.”
As a junior in 2010-11, UVa’s final season under coach Debbie Ryan, Moorer averaged 9.7 points and was named the ACC’s Sixth Player of the Year. Not until this season, however, did Moorer get serious about nutrition and conditioning, and the difference in her game has been striking.
“It’s a testament to her,” Boyle said. “She’s changed her body over the course of this year, which has really helped her.”
Moorer said: “I’m definitely in better shape than I have been in past years. I’ve been eating right, getting extra workouts. I knew I was going to have to eat better and get in better shape, and I knew this team was going to need me to play a lot of minutes.”
Moorer, who was named to the All-ACC second team Tuesday, leads UVa in scoring (13.8 ppg) and assists (3.2 per game), and she’s second in steals (2.7 per game).
“We go as she goes,” Boyle said. “The better she does, the better we do, and she knows that, and she’s embracing that going into tournament time.”
Virginia closed the regular season with three straight victories. In the finale, a 66-57 win at Florida State, Moorer totaled 23 points, 5 assists, 1 steal and no turnovers in — you guessed it — 40 minutes.
“I think she’s played her best basketball in the last three weeks,” Boyle said. “She’s played unbelievable floor games for us, and what I mean by that is, whatever we’ve needed from her in the last three weeks, she’s been able to deliver. And that says a lot about her just peaking at the right time.
“She’s had to defend sometimes the best player on the floor. When teams have pressed us, she’s had to be our primary ball-handler through all of that. She’s had to think through the pace and tempo of the offense in terms of what’s been working for us, what we need to run.”
Of the nine scholarship players Boyle has available in Greensboro, only two are seniors: Moorer and forward Chelsea Shine.
“This is it for me and Chelsea,” Moorer said, “so we want to do the best we can and go as far as possible.”
Their goal, of course, is to make it back to the NCAA tournament, in which Moorer and Shine played as freshmen and sophomores. Boyle is confident that will happen.
“I like our résumé,” Boyle said Tuesday. “We have a big win over Tennessee. We don’t have any bad losses. We’ve won on the road. We’re at 21 wins [overall], at 9-7 [in the ACC].
“I would say, in my heart of hearts, I feel like we’re in, but you never want to leave it to chance. We’re not taking anything lightly. We’re going [to the ACC tourney] to do our best to get as many games under our belt as we can.
Boyle, whose assistant coaches are Cory McNeill, Kim McNeill and Katie O’Connor, came to UVa from the University of California. In Boyle’s six seasons at Cal, her teams made four NCAA tournament appearances.
“She is an amazing coach,” Moorer said. “I never thought I could learn more about the game, since I’ve been playing all my life, but she has taught me so much, she and Coach Cory, Coach Kim, Coach Katie. I learned defense can be fun, and if you just work hard, it will pay off. I never thought defense could be fun.”
The players aren’t the only ones at UVa who have enjoyed this season.
“I think one of the ways you evaluate your own success as a coach and coaching staff is to say, ‘Did we compete the way we needed to compete? Did we maximize our potential? Did we get everything out of them?’ ” Boyle said. “And I think we are getting a lot out of this group, and I think we’re maximizing, and I don’t think they’re finished.
“I think we’re peaking at the right time. It remains to be seen how far we can go, but I like what we’ve gotten so far.”
After a dismal first half against Maryland on Feb. 16 — UVa trailed 44-21 at the break — Boyle’s players have consistently put forth the effort she expects from them.
“I don’t think we’ve ever laid down to anybody,” Boyle said. “So I like the fight that we constantly have on our team, and that says a lot, especially going into the tournament.
“In tournament time there’s highs and lows and there’s pendulum shifts and swings and all that, and you gotta be ready for all those things that can happen. And I think we’ve faced enough of that to understand you’re down, you’re up, nothing’s finalized until that buzzer goes off.”
Still, for all the progress her team has made this season, Boyle isn’t satisfied.
“I think we’ve done a good job this year, but our goal isn’t to stay here,” she said. “It’s to close that gap [between UVa and the ACC’s elite].”