After the final buzzer sounded, closing out Virginia's 61-49 victory over Duke to attain sole possession of first place in the ACC, Coach Debbie Ryan and the Cavaliers assembled at center court for a huddle. The brief moment embodied the Cavs' tremendous turnaround since mid-December. Virginia had won 12 of its last 13 games to take first place in the ACC not by riding one or two stars to the top, but as a team.
"I think we just realized that we really need each other," fourth-year forward Lisa Hosac said. "That's what makes it so good right now. Teams can't key on one player -- there's always someone else. This team has a lot of weapons."
In order to defeat the No. 9 Blue Devils, the Cavs had to go deep into their arsenal. Things looked O.K. as Virginia rocketed to an 18-0 start. But that tremendous run took place in spite of early foul trouble by Renee Robinson, and benefited from some savvy play off the bench by reserves like Katie Tracy, Dean'na Mitchelson and Chalois Lias.
"Our second team went in and we didn't lose a beat," Ryan said.
The Cavaliers also didn't keep Duke down for long. Coming out of the locker room determined not to head back to Durham with the kind of tail-whipping foreshadowed by the first half, the Devils showed new intensity on the defensive side, eventually reducing the Virginia lead to 44-37 with 8:11 to go.
But rising to the top in a tight spot was nothing new to the Cavaliers.
"When the game's on the line they have a lot of confidence in themselves and in their teamates," Ryan said. "I think they love those pressure situations."
The Cavs definitely thrived under pressure yesterday, or at least in the few moments of the game where the Devils were anywhere within striking distance of Virginia.
First, Renee Robinson hit a pull-up jumper. Then Chalois Lias won a lengthy battle under the boards with a putback on Virginia's fourth shot of the possession. Robinson drove to the hole and drew a foul with 3:15 to go, and drained the free throw to put the Cavs up 56-41, driving the final nail in the Duke coffin and drawing praise from Blue Devil coach Gail Goestenkors following the game.
According to Goestenkors, the Virginia team that lost to Duke 83-62 Dec. 5 and the one that beat the Devils by 12 points yesterday are distinctly different.
"Obviously they're just a much better team," she said. "They share the ball much more than the first time we played. They seem to enjoy each other much more, they really come together. They really remind me of us as far as team chemistry."
In order to maintain that chemistry, keeping things loose is apparently the key.
"This is not a team that does well when you tell them too much," Ryan said. "I probably told them too much against Kent. Now I learned my lesson. As a matter of fact I was telling jokes before the game because they were so somber and so serious."
"She told a real corny story," Hosac said.
While Ryan's comedic talent might still be undetermined, the potential of her team is definite. After yesterday's victory, the Cavs should be able to control their destiny. And with only seven ACC games remaining -- all against teams Virginia has already beaten -- could an ACC title be far behind?