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Longtime neighbors could be trouble for NCAA foes

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.

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."

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.