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Squad relishes early upset win

Boyle

When the Virginia women's basketball team stormed into Knoxville in 2008 and took down two-time defending champion Tennessee, 83-82, the Cavaliers were no secret.

They were ranked 16th and were fresh off a 24-win season in which they advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

They were led by a legendary duo of Women's Basketball Hall of Famer Debbie Ryan, who was in her 32nd year coaching the Cavaliers, and then-junior guard Monica Wright. Wright would set the program's all-time single-season scoring record that year with 696 points, a record which stood until Wright eclipsed that mark the following season with 734 points.

When Wright went off for a then-career-high 35 points against the Lady Volunteers to topple one of the marquee programs in women's college basketball, the result was no stunner. Virginia's win was an upset, nothing more.

But when Tennessee paid a visit to Charlottesville Nov. 20, there was no Wright and no Ryan - just a team in a "transition" year with a new coach at the helm, pegged to finish eighth in the ACC and led by a band of role players but no true go-to scorer.

Perhaps coach Joanne Boyle's scrappy team could play shutdown zone defense against unranked opponents, but up against preseason All-American senior guard Shekinna Stricklen and senior forward Glory Johnson - both likely first-round picks in the 2012 WNBA draft - and freshman prodigy guard Ariel Massengale, Virginia would surely succumb to the myriad offensive options the Lady Volunteers would throw at them. Or so it seemed to every objective observer outside the Cavalier locker room.

"Everybody in that locker room believed we could win that game," Boyle said. "That's no disrespect to Tennessee; they're an unbelievable program. But, the way you build a program is to put belief and trust in each other, and that's what this team has done."

Virginia stunned No. 3 Tennessee, 69-64, in overtime with a gutsy performance from start to finish. Stunned would apply not only to the college basketball pundits but also to the Lady Volunteers' demeanor as the Cavaliers made key plays down the stretch while one of the nation's most talented and experienced teams faltered and fumbled away its opportunities.

Crucial to Virginia's win were the 24 turnovers it forced, which translated into 27 points. "That's hard to overcome," Tennessee associate coach Holly Warlick said of the turnovers. "But I think a lot of that had to do with Virginia and what they were doing defensively, so give them the credit."

With each passing second, the Cavaliers traded initial jitters for confidence bordering on cockiness as several players repeatedly waved their arms to pump up a crowd of 6,450. Junior guard Lexie Gerson ignited the Cavaliers off the bench with eight points, including a pair of three-pointers to help Virginia keep pace with Tennessee and head into the break tied at 29 apiece.

Sophomore forward Jazmin Pitts came off the bench in the second half to cap a 13-4 run out of the break and give the Cavaliers their largest lead of the game at 42-33. From there, Virginia turned to the only two players on their roster with personal experience in taking down Tennessee. Senior guard Ariana Moorer notched a double-double and senior forward Chelsea Shine scored 18 points and pulled down nine rebounds to earn ACC Player of the Week honors. Along with junior guard China Crosby, the trio scored the team's final 22 points in regulation and overtime.

"I thought their team had a lot of energy and a lot of confidence," Warlick said. "I think through [Boyle], they had a great game plan and the team did what she asked them to do. I don't think they got rattled. It was a great win for them and those kids deserve a lot of credit; they played hard and when they needed buckets, they hit baskets, and when they needed stops, they did that as well."

After Crosby dribbled out the final four seconds, she launched the ball up toward the rafters in celebration.

If the Cavaliers' 2008 victory was an upset, 2011 was a miracle. The win gave Virginia its first 4-0 start since 1997, its first win against a top-three opponent since 2000 and a spot in the national rankings at No. 22.

Virginia players have embraced the underdog role, using it as motivation to meet Boyle's demand for focus and intensity during every practice. Now the question is whether the team's national notoriety will reinforce that work ethic or lead to a more complacent group which no longer plays with a chip on its shoulder.

"This win just goes to show that the hard work and the program [and] what we're buying into is worth it and it's real," Shine said. "Everybody on this team is totally sold on what the coaches are trying to do here. With every game, watching our zone defense grow and become more tenacious like that makes us believe more and more in each other."

A trip to Hawaii may not have been the best prescription for combatting complacency. During Thanksgiving Break, the Cavaliers traveled to Honolulu for a three-game tournament, the Waikiki Beach Marriott Rainbow Wahine Showdown. The Cavaliers managed a 60-43 victory against host Hawaii but showed little of the tenacity and focus of the Tennessee tilt during defeats to No. 24 Texas, 79-53, and California, 59-50.

Virginia's shaky Thanksgiving trip dropped them from the national rankings, but the Cavaliers (5-2) look to get back on track as Indiana (2-3) comes to Charlottesville Thursday for a Big Ten/ACC Challenge contest.

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