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Lady Vols conquer JPJ in front of large crowd

Ryan emphasizes young team

In front of 11,895 raucous fans - the largest crowd ever for a women's basketball game at John Paul Jones Arena - No. 12 Virginia suffered its first loss of the season, falling to No. 6 Tennessee, 77-63.

Though the young team did not emerge with an upset win, the players and staff might have caught a glimpse of the type of team they can become by season's end.

"I felt like we got a lot of good play from some young players that will take this experience, build on it and make something positive of it," Virginia coach Debbie Ryan said. "This is a game early in the year that, win or lose, does nothing but help you."

The experience was certainly a positive one for freshman center Simone Egwu, who has already emerged as a key cog for Virginia this season. The 6-foot-3 Egwu went up against the 6-foot-6 Lady Volunteer center Kelley Cain. The Tennessee sophomore blocked six shots during the course of the game, but Egwu still managed to establish herself with 10 points and six rebounds.

"It's pretty unnerving at first, being a first-year and getting so much playing time," Egwu said. "But I just have a really supportive team that's helped me get through it and overcome the jitters."

Tennessee dominated the Cavaliers in the paint at first, playing a strong zone defense that forced the Cavaliers to shoot from the outside. During the first period, the Lady Volunteers held a seven-point advantage in second-chance points, and at one point in the first half, opened up a 13-point lead.

"I thought the first half that we were behind on the boards for sure," Ryan said. "We were one and done most of the time and they were doing a great job rebounding."

Virginia started to build some momentum when Egwu established her presence down low, thereby creating opportunities on the perimeter. With less than two minutes left in the half, senior guard Monica Wright and sophomore guard Ariana Moorer made three-point shots on back-to-back possessions and the Cavaliers headed into the break down only 40-33.

The Cavaliers carried that momentum into the second half. Three consecutive Virginia scores cut the deficit to 42-39. But Tennessee junior guard Angie Bjorklund completed a three-point shot and free throw on the Lady Vols' next possession, and freshman guard Taber Spani followed it up with another three-pointer.

"We needed to get a stop and then a score consecutively," said Wright, who finished with a team-high 21 points. "Those pressure points are imperative and those make the outcomes of the game. Noticing what we need to do at that time ... It just comes with experience."

After that play, the Cavaliers never threatened again. They shot less than 30 percent from the field in the second period and made only 50 percent of their foul shots for the game. Just as important, any scoring run they started was abruptly answered and ended by Tennessee.

"Unfortunately, we [didn't] recognize that pressure point in the game," Ryan said. "Tennessee took advantage of it and we didn't ... We were fighting from behind the rest of the way."

The Lady Volunteers were not the same team that Virginia shocked in Knoxville last year behind Wright's 39-point performance. Tennessee's young players have improved significantly after playing in the spotlight for most of last season.

"We've grown a lot," Tennessee coach Pat Summitt said. "Last year was a little painful because it was hard to know who was going to show up and play. We weren't as competitive and we didn't have that toughness, that edge to us."

Ryan likewise believes yesterday's physical game in front of a massive crowd will similarly have a positive effect on her team, and noted that Virginia's freshmen had never before played on such a big stage.

"I don't even think our first-years had any idea what today was going to be like," Ryan said. "It was just a great environment. For a game in November to be like this, it can do nothing but help your team coming down the stretch."

Both Ryan and Summitt noticed many of the striking similarities between Tennessee's raw squad last year and Virginia's young team this year.

"[There are] a lot of similarities," Summitt said. "Sometimes, there's growing pains, but I would say as [the Cavaliers] go through this season, they're going to be a lot better come tournament time."

The Cavaliers will next head to Freeport, Grand Bahama Island for the Junkanoo Jam, taking on Indiana first Thursday.


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