A year ago, Svetlana Volnaya was just a shooter. She filled that role well in her first season with the Cavaliers, converting 26 percent of her three-point tries, but although she possessed the physical skills to be a better all-around player, Volnaya had problems finding her own shot rather than relying on others to get her involved.
So how did The Shooter, the Virginia women basketball team's 6-foot-1 Belarus native, go from being a player on the outside looking in, waiting for kick-outs from the Cavs' hard-working guards, to the top scorer in the ACC? How did Volnaya, so personable and gregarious, transform herself from The Fan Favorite to The Force, becoming feared by Conference foes and the object of every opponent's defensive schemes?
Volnaya's story - a rags to riches yarn that you see so many times in sports in players like Kurt Warner, Sammy Sosa and Harold Arceneuax - has little to do with physical talent and everything to do with confidence and maturation. Volnaya didn't wake up one day and have an 18.1 Conference scoring average next to her name. Teams like Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Clemson didn't decide suddenly that she was the one that had to be stopped to beat Virginia. No, great transformations like Volnaya's this season don't happen overnight - not without a new mind set and a new sense of dedication.
"I think right now, I'm definitely a more all-around player," Volnaya said. "Last year, I was a shooter, basically. I didn't drive. That's how the coaches defined me - a shooter. This season, a lot of people are saying that I'm very hard to guard because I have a fast first step and I can still take the three-point shot."
Nowhere was her dedication more evident than in Virginia's exhausting double-overtime victory over Clemson Thursday. Fifty minutes of close, emotional Conference basketball was played in a game that saw as many momentum shifts as a 12-round heavyweight championship fight. Players stumbled off the court, trying desperately to summon up enough energy just to breathe. Even fans collapsed in their seats, fatigued from hours of trying to match the intensity of the game.
But, as nine of the 10 players on the court were substituted in and out and given a couple minutes to relieve the pain of pure exhaustion, Volnaya stayed in for the full 50 minutes and contributed 15 points and a vital three-pointer in the first overtime. While others might have complained at the length of the game or the difficulty of playing at such intensity for nearly three hours, Volnaya relished the opportunity.
"She's very prepared" to play that long, Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan said after the Clemson game. "She'll probably come in here now and say she's sorry that we're not practicing tomorrow. She wants to go out right now and play another one. She's amazing."
Looking at her performance this season, it's no wonder Volnaya wants to play every minute of basketball that she can. After averaging only 6.4 points and 19 minutes per game last season, she shocked most observers by averaging 15 points and 27 minutes thus far this year. Those numbers don't lead the Cavaliers, but it is only because Volnaya's rebirth didn't come until late December. Since then, she has been unstoppable, averaging 20.7 points in her past seven games.
In the process, she's seized the undivided attention of the ACC by leading the league in scoring in Conference games (18.1 points-per-game in seven ACC matches) and grabbing last week's ACC Player of the Week award after exploding for 28 points against Maryland Jan. 15.
"Defenses are scared of me now," Volnaya said. "N.C. State and Clemson were face-guarding me and denying me the ball. They expect for me to be hard to play against. That opens it up for other people to score."
Before the tip-off of Thursday's double-overtime win over Clemson, Ryan called her players over for a pre-game conference, for a few "go get 'ems" to psyche up the troops. But, in the huddle, one player was missing.
One player was still out on the court with a ball in her hand, shooting, but missing. Warm-up shot after warm-up shot clanged against the back of the rim or fell an inch off center. Frustrated, Volnaya refused to jog off to the sideline until she got it right, which she did after a few do-overs. The Force isn't one to settle for anything but her best.