The Virginia women's basketball team dismantled Morgan State 69-56 during last night's WNIT opener, but coach Debbie Ryan had tears in her eyes after the game.
Ryan announced Saturday that she will step down after 34 years at the Cavaliers' helm, and she could not ignore that Thursday's game may have been her last at John Paul Jones Arena.
"It's hard to coach right now, it's hard to do everything right now," Ryan said. "I love my players, I love my coaches, I love everything about this place, so this is just very, very hard."
Fortunately for Ryan, her team needed little coaching against Morgan State. The Lady Bears took an early 3-2 lead, but Virginia followed with a 9-0 run and never trailed again.
"I really didn't have to worry about coaching tonight, the players took that out of my hands right away," Ryan said. "They took care business and ... were pretty much on autopilot tonight."
The Cavaliers played inspired Thursday, dedicating the game as a tribute to their Hall-of-Fame coach.
Ryan "puts her heart and soul into every practice and every game, and we just want to go out there and put that on the court," freshman guard Ataira Franklin said.
Virginia dominated inside against a smaller Morgan State team, pulling down 51 rebounds and outscoring the Lady Bears 28-12 in the paint. The team's strong post play propelled it to 48 percent shooting through the first period, and the Cavaliers owned a 43-27 lead at the half.
With such a lopsided score, Ryan was able to give every Cavalier playing time.
Junior guard Whitny Edwards came off the bench to pace the Cavaliers with 11 points and seven rebounds, while junior guard Ariana Moorer scored 10 off the bench as well.
Virginia led by as many as 26 points during the second half, but lost its rhythm with the frequent substitutions during the closing minutes. After assuming a 65-40 lead with 8:11 remaining, Virginia did not score again until sophomore forward Simone Egwu hit two free throws with 1:47 left.
"We played everybody, and gave everybody a decent amount of time, but when you do that it hurts your chemistry," Ryan said. "I felt like it was something I needed to do because they were playing hard and they played hard in practice and I wanted to give everyone a chance to play in postseason."
Thursday's win will allow Virginia to continue in the postseason and gives Ryan the chance to continue coaching. As the team heads to Loyola Sunday, Ryan hopes to stretch her final season to its fullest extent.
"I told the players before we started the game that it would give me a chance to stay a little longer with them," Ryan said. "That's been kind of our rallying cry, we really want to stay together as long as we possibly can"