Cavs, coach Ryan get the best of young Lady Vols
It was a mind-boggling Monday for guard Monica Wright and the Virginia Cavaliers, who beat two-time defending national champion Tennessee 83-82.
Wright had a career-high 35 points as -- just two days after raising the program's eighth NCAA title banner -- Tennessee lost at home. Which happens virtually never and totally never before against Virginia. In four previous games against Tennessee at Thompson-Boling Arena, the Cavs were 0-4.
And until Monday, they were 1-11 overall in what has been the "heartbreak" series for Virginia and coach Debbie Ryan. No other program has caused the Cavs as much grief as Tennessee. Folks, this upset is truly worth the back story.
The only other time Virginia beat Tennessee was March 24, 1990 -- when Pat Summitt's team was the defending NCAA titlist, as it is now.
UVa had a wizard of a guard at that time, too, Dawn Staley. She was a sophomore who'd been crushed and extremely ticked off by her final game the season before, an 80-47 NCAA Sweet 16 loss to Tennessee.
Staley's chance at revenge came almost exactly a year to the day later, on Old Dominion's home court in Norfolk, Va. In the East Regional final, the second-seeded Cavaliers beat No. 1 seed Tennessee 79-75 in overtime. Summitt had to go home to Thompson-Boling and host the 1990 Final Four party in which her team wasn't participating.
Oh, did she stew.
Then there's the second stanza, the oft-told tale of the birth of Tyler Summitt later that year. Summitt was recruiting Michelle Marciniak in Pennsylvania, went into labor and then told the pilots to get her back to Knoxville. They had said they could make an emergency stop in, of all places, Virginia. But Summitt wasn't about to have her child born in that state -- especially not that year.
And now here we are, 18 years later. Tyler is a senior in high school. Staley is coaching in the same league as Summitt, at South Carolina. Ryan survived a harrowing battle with cancer. Virginia's Burge twins, Heather and Heidi, survived a really goofy Disney movie made about them.
Summitt has gone on to win six more national championships since that March 1990 night that was so painful for her. And on the way, she delivered two excruciating paybacks to Virginia: beating the Cavaliers in overtime in the 1991 NCAA title game and in the 1996 Elite Eight on Virginia's home court.
Nearly two decades later, Summitt is closing in on 1,000 career victories. But she didn't get one Monday night. Ryan did.
None of the players on either side is old enough to remember that other UVa victory in this series. Players such as Tennessee rookie Glory Johnson were not even born yet when that game was played.
To them, this contest was about right now: a new era for Tennessee and perhaps for Virginia, too.
Summitt lost her starting five from last season but was missing even more than that Monday night. Two of the current sophomores who saw a lot of time on last season's team were sitting out, too: Angie Bjorklund (back) and Vicki Baugh (still recovering from an ACL injury).
In Knoxville, they're calling this group -- which includes six rookies and one redshirt freshman -- the "Baby Vols." And like infants, they can be adorable and cute and make Summitt smile but they also can make her want to scream a lot.
You saw both sides of the Baby Vols on Monday. Johnson and Briana Bass -- kind of the new versions of Candace Parker and Shannon Bobbitt -- led the team with 13 points each.
Six Tennessee players scored in double digits. That fact and the tally of 82 points would, in a "normal" year for the program, result in near-certain victory. Because, normally, Tennessee doesn't give up 83 points.
OK, the U.S. national team scored that many against Tennessee in an exhibition last season. But the last time something like that happened in a real game was in January 2006. And Tennessee still won that contest, 94-85 over Georgia.
The inability to stop Wright -- she shot 14-of-26 from the floor, including four 3-pointers -- the Cavs' success at penetrating and their 50 percent shooting success from the field all were neon-light examples of Tennessee's youth.
The Shekinna Stricklen foul on Britnee Millner in the closing seconds could be perceived as a rookie mistake, too. But those things happen to veteran players as well, and it was the kind of foul that in some cases doesn't even get called.
But it did, and then Millner hit the first of her two free throws. She almost snared the rebound after missing the second one, but Tennessee got the ball and then called a timeout.
For anyone who has watched Tennessee escape with victories in these situations so many times over the years, there was a feeling that somehow Summitt would pull it off again.
Tennessee would throw a long pass inbounds, then would get a shot that would bounce off the rim and in. Or there would be a foul called against Virginia, and Tennessee would go to the line with just tenths of a second left and win. We've seen it over and over.
But not this time, and again, the youth showed. Tennessee didn't even get off a last shot.
You can bet there will be extensive tape study and running in practice and all that fun stuff for the Baby Vols. This might have been the best possible thing for them, actually although they won't feel that way now. Ask them in March.
This night, though, belonged to the Cavaliers, who got 19 points from Aisha Mohammed. And this victory especially belonged to Ryan, a very strong woman who has endured the changes in the sport since she started coaching in the 1970s, the disappointment of three straight Final Fours with no title and, most seriously, the threat to her health and life.
Let's face it: Some thought she should have stepped down a few years ago. But she wasn't done coaching. Now she has beaten Tennessee again (finally) and did it without the graduated Sharnee Zoll, the injured Paulisha Kellum and the academically ineligible Lyndra Littles.
It's funny, the connecting threads through the years. There's even a twin link: Ryan has twins on her team this season for the second time in her 32 seasons. Those are freshmen Whitny and Britny Edwards. The previous time Ryan's team beat Tennessee, her other set of twins -- the zany Burges -- were freshmen.
It has been a long time coming, coach Ryan. And even the disappointed Tennessee fans -- who know class acts when they see them -- would applaud you.
Besides, the Orange Brigade also knows this part of history: Tennessee losses usually are followed by big gains. Remember, Tennessee had another longtime victory streak against a rival broken last season with a loss to Stanford. And we know how the second matchup with Stanford -- in the NCAA title game -- turned out.
Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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