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Cavs look to keep ball rolling against No. 4 Duke

Black, well-rounded Devils pose tough test as Cavaliers seek fourth straight victory

There is no rest for the weary teams in the ACC as they work their way through an ever-challenging conference schedule.

Such is the case for the Virginia women’s basketball team, which faces its second top-10 team in three games tonight as it attempts to take down No. 4 Duke (18-2, 6-1 ACC) in John Paul Jones Arena.

The Cavaliers (18-4, 4-2 ACC) enter the game with plenty of momentum; the team followed last Friday’s come-from-behind upset of then-No. 8 Maryland with an 88-50 drubbing of Longwood Sunday.

While Duke encountered a bump in the road last Thursday, suffering an overtime loss to ACC-upstart and then-No. 18 Florida State in Tallahassee, the Blue Devils rebounded nicely with a 69-58 defeat of Boston College Monday at home. With the win, Duke moves into a tie with the Seminoles atop the ACC.

Duke is “a really good defensive team,” Virginia coach Debbie Ryan said. “They’re very athletic, they have great size on the inside, and great shooters on the outside.”

The Blue Devils are led by senior center Chante Black, who stands two inches taller than any Virginia starter and could pose matchup problems in the paint.

“Chante Black is just a force in the post,” senior forward Lyndra Littles said. “We’re going to have to play defense, we’re going to have to box out, we’re going to have to rebound.”

As Duke’s leading scorer with an average of 15.5 points per game, Black has been named one of 20 finalists for the Wooden Award, given annually to the most outstanding male and female collegiate basketball players in the country.

Chante is “a great player,” Ryan said. “You won’t be able take everything away from her, but we can do our best to neutralize her.”

The Cavaliers’ own senior center Aisha Mohammed, however, has shown an ability to play physical basketball this season. While bolstering Virginia’s offensive attack with 12.9 points per game, Mohammed has proven to be an even greater asset on the offensive boards for the Cavaliers. With the help of Mohammed’s team-leading 9.2 rebounds per game, the squad has managed 408 rebounds to its opponents’ 271 on the year.

In addition to their front-court threat, the Blue Devils will attempt to spread the wealth on offense. Although Black is Duke’s only starter averaging double figures this season, four players are tallying more than eight points per game. The Cavalier defense will have to be vigilant to combat such a diverse offensive attack and must avoid zeroing in on any one player.

In contrast, Virginia’s team is quite top-heavy, as the Cavaliers rely on junior guard Monica Wright and Littles for the bulk of their scoring. Littles earned her second ACC Player of the Week honor after averaging 23 points and 6.3 rebounds in the Cavaliers’ past three victories, while Wright has tallied 21.9 points per game thus far. Littles, Wright and Mohammed all rank in the top-10 in the ACC in points per game during conference play.

Littles “has had a really good start in the ACC,” Ryan said. “She’s just a very dynamic player right now.”

Virginia will need players such as sophomore forward Kelly Hartig (1.3 points per game and .292 field goal percentage) and senior guard Britnee Millner (4.4 points per game) to step up and provide more offensive production if it hopes to knock off the dangerous Blue Devils.

“Someone will step up,” Ryan said when asked what would happen if Littles, Wright or Mohammed has a bad night.

In addition to its own team members, Virginia will also look to feed off the intensity of what it hopes will be another raucous JPJ home crowd, like the one that played a key role in the team’s upset against Maryland. The players drew inspiration from the fans’ energy in their late-game rally Friday, and the crowds’ chants visibly rattled the Terrapin players en route to the Cavaliers’ 12th home win in 13 games this season. Ryan praised the home crowd’s efforts following the game and is hoping that the arena is similarly unwelcoming for the visiting Blue Devils. Ryan sent an e-mail to Virginia students yesterday urging as many fans as possible to attend the game.

Regardless of the outcome of the Duke clash, the Cavaliers cannot afford to dwell on the game; the ACC gauntlet continues with rival Virginia Tech rolling into Charlottesville Sunday, followed by a road rematch with No. 6 Maryland Feb. 12.

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