The Virginia women's basketball team will look to even its record in ACC play and knock off a ranked conference foe for the first time in four tries when it takes on No. 11 Miami tonight at John Paul Jones Arena. To unseat the Hurricanes, however, the Cavaliers (14-5, 2-3 ACC) must adjust to a situation which is growing increasingly familiar but no less disheartening as they play the remainder of their season without floor general junior guard China Crosby.
When healthy, Crosby has mixed flashes of her tantalizing talent - slicing through the defense with ease or dishing a sweet assist to a cutting teammate one moment - with errant passes or ill-advised drives that frustrate coaches. At times she looked fully recovered from a left knee injury which cost her the final 18 games of her freshman year, displaying the kind of explosiveness which led former head coach Debbie Ryan to start her during the final 12 games of the 2010-11 season.
Other times, Crosby appeared tentative playing on her surgically repaired knee, even hammering the vacant front row seats with a closed fist in disappointment and agony when she believed her season might have been over after re-injuring the knee during a blowout win against High Point.
"She tweaked it a couple of times throughout the year and I think the JMU game is probably where she ended up tearing it," coach Joanne Boyle said. "She was trying to make a move to the basket and it went out on her."
Crosby's uneven 2011-12 campaign reached a high point when she returned just four days after the scary injury against High Point to help lead Virginia to a stunning win against then-No. 3 Tennessee Nov. 20. Against the Lady Vols, Crosby hit a go-ahead circus shot with 36 seconds to play in regulation and nailed three of four free throws in overtime to ice a marquee win for the Cavaliers.
Exactly one month later, Crosby's 2011-12 season came to a crashing halt against James Madison. After logging just one minute, Crosby's knee gave out. Crosby underwent surgery Jan. 4 to repair a torn ACL in her left knee, her second such procedure in three years. The injury could threaten the future of her Virginia career and leaves the Cavaliers without an experienced player at the point guard position.
"Obviously it's hard missing China with her energy, leadership and obviously her skill set at point guard, but every team has to deal with adversity and if you hang onto it too long, it's going to implode your team," Boyle said. "You have to move on quickly and keep her with you and help her along. Everybody just has to do a little bit more and I think they have."
Miami (15-3, 4-1 ACC), meanwhile, checks into Charlottesville as one of the hottest teams in the ACC, having won four straight to move into third place in the conference. Miami, like Virginia, thrives on extra possessions, ranking second behind the Cavaliers in turnover margin in the conference. The Hurricanes also lead the ACC with 15 steals per game.
Virginia struggles to secure rebounds under its own basket with the lowest defensive rebounding percentage in the ACC at just 62 percent. To help alleviate the Cavaliers' rebounding struggles, Boyle has made some changes to the lineup. Crosby's injury has created an opening for an extra post player to contribute off the bench when sophomore Ataira Franklin slides into the two-guard spot.
Another beneficiary has been junior forward Telia McCall, who logged 22 minutes in the loss to Maryland Monday, scoring eight points on four-of-six shooting and grabbing seven rebounds. McCall's emergence gives Boyle the flexibility to go big in certain situations, pairing McCall with junior center Simone Egwu or senior forward Chelsea Shine to help alleviate the Cavaliers' rebounding struggles.
Junior guard Lexie Gerson, formerly the first player off the bench, has assumed the vacant starting spot on the wing in Crosby's absence. Gerson has provided the starting group with a sharp-shooter to complement Franklin and has emerged as the team's fourth leading scorer with 8.1 points per game behind Franklin, Moorer and Shine.
Crosby's injury has also led Boyle to trim her already short rotation, forcing Moorer and Franklin to play heavy minutes usually reserved for All-Americans. Both played all 50 minutes of the double-overtime loss against the Tar Heels, and the duo already ranks in the top ten in the ACC in minutes played with 34.4 and 33.1 per game, respectively, and are quickly climbing that list.
"We have no other option. It's them or nobody," Boyle said.
As the Cavaliers become more confident without Crosby, they hope to pair their shocking upset victory against Tennessee with another against Miami, and compile a solid conference record in the deep and dangerous ACC.
"I'm very happy with how hard the girls are playing, how they continue to buy in whether China's with us or not, whether we're facing a good team or bad team," Boyle said. "We're just trying to stay focused on what we can control, and we've been in every tough game"