By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Dawn Staley Era at the University of Virginia ended at the conclusion of the 1991-92 season, and with the All-America guard’s departure from the women’s basketball program came a measure of uncertainty.
Staley, a two-time national player of the year, was not the only star UVA head coach Debbie Ryan had to replace. Also gone were All-ACC guard Tammi Reiss and trusted reserves Audra Smith and Melanee Wagener. And so questions surrounded a program coming off its third consecutive trip to the Final Four.
“We had leadership, but we just didn’t know what to expect,” recalled Heather Quella.
Now married with three children, Quella went by Heather Burge in college, and she was a 6-5 senior for the Cavaliers in 1992-93. So was her twin, Heidi, who’s now Heidi Horton.
UVA’s roster also included such players as senior guard Dena Evans, sophomore forward Charleata Beale, sophomore post player Amy Lofstedt and talented freshmen Wendy Palmer, Jenny Boucek, Kristen Somogyi and Jeffra Gausepohl.
Together, they put together a remarkable season.
“It was awesome,” recalled Ryan, whose 34th and final season as UVA’s head coach was 2010-11. “It was because of the strength of those guys. They weren’t going to fade into the sunset. Dena was one of those people who had an incredible belief that we were going to do it again.”
Quella said: “We had a lot of heart. We had such an amazing experience there with unity and solidarity. It’s rare to find that.”
The `Hoos, who played their home games at University Hall then, swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles in 1992-93. Virginia finished 26-6 after falling to Ohio State in the NCAA tourney’s Elite Eight.
“We didn’t know how the team was going to do [heading into the season],” Horton said, “but there was some real leadership and people stepping up. Even freshmen like Wendy Palmer.
“We had great chemistry. Our biggest cheerleader was Jenny Boucek” — now an assistant coach with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings — “and when you have that kind of passion, that can fuel you to do great things.”
At 12:30 p.m. Sunday, the current Cavaliers, who are 12-7 overall and 5-1 in the ACC, host arch-rival Virginia Tech (13-6, 2-4). It’s National Girls and Women in Sports Day at John Paul Jones Arena, and the 1992-93 team will be honored at halftime.
“I’m so excited to get back,” said Quella, who lives in Southern California, where she’s a teacher.
Ryan and Melissa Wiggins, one of UVA’s assistant coaches in 1992-93, plan to be at JPJ on Sunday, along with eight players from that team: Quella, Horton, Palmer, Jeffra Gausepohl Leo, Charleata Beale Neal, Cheryl Taylor, Amy Lofstedt Gusky, and Wendy Toussaint McNair.
“It’s going to be a sweet time re-connecting with people,” said Horton, a Houston resident who’s married and has two children. “Blink your eyes, and it’s been 25 years, and that’s how it feels.”
Heather Burge led the Cavaliers in scoring (19.1 ppg), rebounding (7.7 per game) and blocked shots (1.5 per game) in 1992-93 and was named to the All-ACC first team. Heidi Burge averaged 8.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game.
Evans, a second-team all-conference selection, was second in scoring (13.5 ppg) and first in assists (6.7 per game) and steals (2.0 per game). As a junior in 1991-92, she’d averaged only 6.5 points per game.
“Dena really stepped into a leadership role,” said Ryan, who was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. “She just blossomed that year and became the ultimate scorer. She was so intelligent in the way that she played the game and saw the game.
“She was one of the best right-handed players going left I ever had. It just confused people.”
Palmer, who later had her number (31) retired at UVA, averaged 11.7 points and 6.9 rebounds in 1992-93 and was named to the ACC’s All-Freshman team.
“She was a rebounding machine,” Ryan said, “and she really helped us that year.”
During the regular season, the Cavaliers finished 13-3 in conference play to earn the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament. That was held in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where Virginia defeated Wake Forest 74-46 in the quarterfinals. UVA then edged Clemson 79-71 in overtime, and the championship game produced more drama.
Virginia needed three overtimes to defeat Maryland 106-103. At the end of the second OT, Maryland freshman Lena Patterson hit a long 3-pointer to extend the game.
“The team comes running over to sit down, and Dena Evans was literally laughing in the huddle, and that was not her personality,” Ryan said. “I asked her why she was laughing, and she said, `If you don’t think that was funny, you don’t don’t have a sense of humor.’
“So everybody laughed, which was the best possible thing that could have happened, because then we went out there super-loose.”
Gausepohl averaged only 6.5 minutes per game that season. But she played extensively in the ACC championship game — Virginia’s other post players were in foul trouble — and scored 14 points in the three overtimes. She made eight straight free throws, including the last four in the third OT.
“It was crazy,” Horton said of the game.
In the NCAA tournament, UVA was the East Region’s No. 2 seed. The `Hoos defeated Florida 69-55 at U-Hall and then beat Georgetown 77-57 at the Richmond Coliseum. On the brink of a fourth straight Final Four appearance, Virginia lost 75-73 to Ohio State in Richmond.
“That was a heartbreaker, because we were really so playing well then,” said Ryan, who’s now an associate director of development for the UVA Health System.
Those were heady times for Virginia women’s basketball, which has not won an ACC title since 1993. In the four seasons the Burge twins and Evans were in the program, the `Hoos posted a record of 118-17 and played in the Final Four three times. The Cavaliers were NCAA runners-up in 1991, losing in New Orleans to Tennessee in overtime.
“It sure felt good to be part of that dynasty,” said Horton, who coaches young players in Houston at her Hoops-School. “It was an amazing part of our lives.”
Her sister agreed.
“There’s nothing to compare to something like that,” Quella said. “The experience we had was just incredible. The University itself, the professors we had, and the basketball, it was so amazing. I don’t know how to put it. It was incomparable, because it happens so seldom.”