Nov. 8, 2012

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — She’s never had the pleasure of coaching Monica Wright. But UVa women’s coach Joanne Boyle knows from first-hand experience how Wright can dominate a basketball game.

In the 2009 NCAA tournament, Boyle, then coaching at California, led her team into a second-round match-up with Virginia. Wright then a junior guard for the Cavaliers, scored 18 of her team-high 26 points in the second half that night in Los Angeles.

Her tour de force wasn’t enough to overcome Cal, which won 99-73, but Wright made a lasting impression on Boyle.

“She almost single-handedly brought them back to win it,” Boyle recalled Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena.

There are very few players who can “say, `Jump on my back, and I can win this for you,’ ” Boyle said. “At that time she was one of those players, and still is today in the [WNBA].”

Boyle doesn’t know Wright well, but they’ll get to spend some time together Friday. Wright, who recently finished her third season with the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, will be town to watch UVa open the season against JMU at JPJ.

She’ll be more than a spectator Friday night. At halftime of the 7 o’clock game, Wright, Virginia’s all-time leading scorer, will have her number, 22, retired in a ceremony at JPJ. Previously retired were the numbers of former UVa greats Donna Holt (11), Dawn Staley (24), Cathy Grimes (25) and Wendy Palmer (31).

Wright, the ACC player of the year and a first-team All-American as a senior in 2009-10, finished her college career with 2,540 points. She also holds school records for career scoring average, field goals, and number of games with at least 25 points. She ranks fourth all-time at UVa in career steals and 10th in career rebounds.

“I’m just really excited,” Wright said. “I’m happy to just get back and be in JPJ for a game. I haven’t seen a game in a while.”

As for her honor, “I’m just actually surprised that [UVa] did it so soon,” Wright said. “But I’m in excellent company with Dawn Staley, Donna Holt, Wendy Palmer, players like that, and I just hope that I can live up to those expectations.”

Wright, who was a McDonald’s All-American at Forest Park High in Woodbridge, won’t be the only one in the spotlight during the halftime ceremony. Debbie Ryan, who coached Wright at UVa, will be at JPJ, too, for the unveiling of a new banner honoring her career.

A new graphic in the Virginia Basketball Hall of Fame, located at JPJ’s east end, will also recognize Ryan’s accomplishments.

Ryan coached the Wahoos for 34 seasons, during which she compiled a record of 739-324. Under Ryan, who retired after the 2010-11 season, UVa advanced to the NCAA tournament 24 times and reached the Final Four in 1990, ’91 and ’92. She was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.

Boyle played at Duke and later was an assistant coach at her alma mater. She has long admired Ryan.

“Debbie has always been known [as] a groundbreaker,” Boyle said. “The Pat Summitts of the world and the Debbie Ryans of the world, they have just laid the foundation and groundwork for us younger coaches — not so young anymore, but back in the day — to have the opportunities that we do today.

“And she’s always been a good friend, and we still stay in touch. She lives here, and we probably have lunch once every six, eight weeks … and I talk to her pretty regularly. Just want to keep her involved. I always say she built this program, 34 years here, and I’m just trying to get it back to where it was, and kudos to her and everything she’s done for Virginia.”

Four players remain in the program from Wright’s final season at UVa: guards China Crosby and Lexie Gerson, center Simone Egwu and forward Telia McCall, who were freshmen in 2009-10. They’ll be thrilled to see Wright again, Crosby said Tuesday.

“We all keep in touch with her,” Crosby said. “I mean, I only played 12 games with her [in 2009-10], because I went down [with a torn ACL]. But I learned a lot from her … She’s just like a big sister to me, and that will never change. We’re going to be friends forever.”

Wright still hears regularly from Ryan. So do Crosby and junior guard Ataira Franklin, UVa’s top returning scorer from 2011-12.

“I was only with Coach Ryan for a year,” Franklin said, “but I feel like you pick up so much in your first year of college, especially confidence-wise, and I feel like Coach Ryan was a coach that definitely believed in me and helped me get to where I am now as a player. So it’ll be really exciting to see her. She still texts us after games or if she finds out we’ve received any honors, and is just very happy for us, and always just willing to help … I’m thankful for that, that that relationship is still there.”

Crosby, a McDonald’s All-American in high school, said she chose UVa in large part “because of Coach Ryan and the legacy that she has here. I learned so much my first year, and I learned a lot even after I got hurt. And just seeing her coach the game, and seeing the happiness she had for us as players, even off the court, we really appreciate that. I’m going to be excited to see her. I haven’t seen her since she left.”

Wright, whose offseason home is in Woodbridge, hasn’t been back to Charlottesville since the spring. She treasures memories of her time at UVa.

“I feel so honored to be able to say that I played under Debbie Ryan, and that I was able to be there going to school at the same time as people like Chris Long and a lot of great athletes,” Wright said.

Her pro career hasn’t been limited to the WNBA. Wright has played in Poland and in Turkey and is headed this year to Australia.

“I’ve heard great things about Australia,” Wright said.

For her part, Boyle said she’s “heard nothing but unbelievably great things” about Wright, “almost that cliché: She’s a better person than she is a player … She just seems like a really sweet girl, and very much about her university, about Virginia and the things that happened here for her.”

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