Commentary

Longtime neighbors could be trouble for NCAA foes

Updated: March 4, 2008, 3:45 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

For Virginia, the key "road trip" for this season actually came in May 2007 with a visit to Senegal. For Old Dominion, it was a November trek to the Virgin Islands. Both teams learned a lot on their respective journeys.

ODU, Virginia have
enjoyed much success

History is a major point of pride in Virginia, and there's some of that for the Old Dominion and Virginia women's hoops programs.

ODU, located in the harbor city of Norfolk, won the WNIT in 1978, then the AIAW championship in 1979 and 1980. An NCAA title came in 1985, with other Final Four trips in 1983 and 1997. Also of note is that the first two NCAA Final Fours, in 1982 and '83, were held in Norfolk.

UVa, set in the beautiful heart of the state in Charlottesville, made three consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances from 1990 to 1992.

The teams did not play this regular season; ODU has a 16-14 series edge. Their biggest meeting was a dozen years ago in the NCAA Sweet 16. They played at the Cavaliers' home then, University Hall, on March 23, 1996. ODU was the No. 2 seed, UVa No. 3.

That game ended a slightly strained period in which the two schools had not played each other for a few years despite their proximity. The programs had met every season from 1973-74 through 1990-91, but then the series temporarily halted.

Many ODU supporters grumbled it was because the Cavaliers had gotten too big for their britches. So they relished the idea of sticking it to UVa in the NCAA Tournament.

But UVa won 72-60, then fell to No. 1 seed Tennessee in excruciating fashion in the regional final. That's the last time UVa was that close to a Final Four trip.

The next year, it was ODU's turn to get burned by Tennessee. After surviving one of the most exciting and electric games I've ever seen -- an 83-82 overtime win over Stanford in the national semifinals -- ODU lost to Tennessee 68-59 in the NCAA title game.

ODU has had three trips to the Sweet 16 since -- 1998, 1999 and 2000 -- and one to the Elite Eight in 2002. In that 2002 trip, ODU had the misfortune of playing what many consider the best women's college team ever: the UConn squad that went on to win the national championship.

Since 1996, UVa and ODU have met six times in the regular season and also have faced off one other time in the NCAA Tournament. That was a 79-57 UVa win in the first round in 2005, the last time UVa was in the NCAA field.

One could make a case that the emergence of Duke as a national powerhouse in the late 1990s took a big toll on UVa, and to some extent, ODU. The Blue Devils were able to lure recruits from the Atlantic coast region who otherwise might have ended up at those schools. And UVa, of course, has struggled a lot in its ACC series with Duke in the past decade; since 1998, the Cavs are 1-19 against the Blue Devils. That lone win came in 2000.

The challenge ODU has faced is staying near the top of the sport while being in a mid-major conference. The Cavs' main challenge had been trying to hang with the big three of the ACC in recent years: Duke, North Carolina and Maryland.

UVa coach Debbie Ryan says she doesn't mind the fact that her team has been somewhat overlooked nationally this season.

"I think when you're building a program back, you have to do it probably outside of the limelight," she said. "And that's OK because I think the people in the program and our athletic department knew where we were going. And I think our recruits knew."

-- ESPN.com's Mechelle Voepel

There is a fair amount of common ground, in fact, that UVa and ODU share. They are linked by Interstate 64 and a similar history of commitment to women's basketball. Both have longtime coaches who are icons at their schools.

Soon, they'll head into the postseason as two "under the radar" teams to keep an eye on.

"This group has really good chemistry; they are just a great bunch of kids," UVa coach Debbie Ryan said. "We played well last year, but we were too young and didn't have all the pieces."

Now, the Cavaliers have enough pieces to finish fourth in the ACC, with their only league losses coming to powerhouses North Carolina, Maryland (twice) and Duke. UVa held off Georgia Tech in double overtime on Sunday and goes into the ACC tournament this week a "scary" team for the top three to think about.

Meanwhile, ODU suffered its first Colonial Athletic Association loss of the season Sunday on the always-treacherous trip to James Madison. That ended ODU's 19-game winning streak; the only previous losses were to UConn, Stanford and Tennessee.

ODU has one more home game (Thursday against Hofstra) to close out the regular season. But ODU's Constant Convocation Center is one of the eight early-round NCAA Tournament sites.

ODU will once again try to punch its NCAA ticket at the CAA tournament March 13-16 at Delaware. ODU has completely owned that event, winning every one since it joined the CAA in 1991-92. That's 16 in a row, one of women's hoops' most impressive streaks. Admittedly, ODU has been the class of the league. But to never have been tripped up even once -- 16 consecutive automatic bids -- is pretty amazing.

"We have been really fortunate," ODU coach Wendy Larry said, "but it's not something we really talk a bunch about."

Ryan has been at UVa since 1977-78 and will be inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame this year. Larry, who took over at her alma mater in 1987, having previously been an assistant there under Marianne Stanley, is almost certain to one day follow Ryan into the Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tenn.

Both Ryan and Larry are natives of New Jersey and have mined that state for talent over the years. Both teams have starters from the Garden State: Sharnee Zoll (Marlboro) for UVa and Shahida Williams (Newark ) for ODU.

And of course, both have tried to get the top players from Virginia. For ODU, the Hampton Roads area is being particularly well-represented this season with players such as TJ Jordan, Tiffany Green, Jazzmin Walters and Jessica Canady. And UVa's leading scorer, Monica Wright, is from Woodbridge, Va.

Zoll and Jordan are both seniors who will leave big impressions on their respective schools' record books. Zoll recently passed her idol, Dawn Staley, in becoming UVa's all-time assists leader. She now has 757; Staley had 729.

"She compares very favorably to everybody who's been here -- she has a little piece of the top guards who have been through the Virginia ranks," Ryan said of Zoll. "She's had Dawn as her role model since her high school years; she's had her sort of on a pedestal.

"She's a very humble kid but at the same time very intelligent. She's really become a leader like Dawn, too. She's a very good encourager, but also a great enforcer. When something needs to be said, she says it. But she also knows how to make other kids feel good about themselves on the court."

Larry says Jordan is a quiet player, but one who still has a major impact on her teammates' frame of mind.

"She's an introverted kid, but there have been games where her emotion has really carried us," Larry said. "This year has been tough for T.J. because she's had a lot of adjustments to make with a stress reaction in her foot. She hasn't been as healthy as she hoped to be.

"But she's earned so much respect. There are often times in transition where teams will find her and leave the lane wide open."

[+] EnlargeSharnee Zoll
Geoff Burke/US PresswireSharnee Zoll recently passed her idol, Dawn Staley, in becoming UVa's all-time assists leader. She now has 757; Staley had 729.

That's because Jordan is the all-time leader in 3-pointers for both the school and the CAA, with 313.

Oh, and to go back to their most important road trips … ODU played UConn and Stanford back-to-back in the Paradise Jam tournament in the Virgin Islands. After an 86-43 loss to the Huskies, ODU regrouped and pushed the Cardinal in a 69-62 defeat.

"We kind of got a rude awakening," Larry said. "We competed against Connecticut for about 14 minutes -- and then realized we were in foreign territory and didn't play well the rest of that game.

"The next day, we decided we were going to compete. And our post player [Tiffany Green] was 0-for-10 against Stanford. So we knew if we continued to get better together that we might be able to make some noise."

UVa's trip to Senegal wasn't originally planned. Ryan was going to take her squad to Italy, but the opportunity to go to Africa came up. At first, her players weren't very excited about it.

"But by the end of the trip, they all loved me for it," Ryan said. "It was a lot more rugged and just different. It was one of these great experiences where you have nothing but great memories and you learn a lot about another culture. All of us will carry it with us the rest of our lives. It was a great way to get started for this season."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.