Commentary

Wright ready to lead Cavs back to the top

Originally Published: November 28, 2008
By Beth Mowins | Special to ESPN.com

History lives and breathes at the University of Virginia. It's unavoidable sitting on The Lawn in Charlottesville where Edgar Allan Poe wrote his poetry, cruising past The Rotunda that Thomas Jefferson designed, walking The Grounds once owned by founding father James Monroe.

There is plenty of basketball history here, too. The legends of Dawn Staley and Ralph Sampson loom large on campus. Even when the school built its brand new arena a few years ago, the past was present.

[+] EnlargeMonica Wright
AP Photo/Wade PayneMonica Wright is averaging 21.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.4 steals and 3.0 assists over seven games for Virginia.

Virginia junior guard Monica Wright revels in the fact that she practices her trade in a building named for Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones. (OK, it's actually named for the father of a big money donor, but can it be just coincidence that he shares a name with Virginia's first and foremost naval commander?)

Every time Wright dribbles up the court, she trots upon Jefferson's signature, which is scribbled boldly on the floor. And she need only look around the concourse for reminders of Virginia's three trips to the Final Four and berth in the 1991 national championship game.

Wright walks with history every day, which makes it easy to understand why she's so anxious to make some of her own. And also why the winds of change are blowing around a Virginia program that is so ready to wrap its arms around the kind of success it once enjoyed.

"Everything [Wright] does is about winning championships," Cavaliers coach Debbie Ryan said. "She has a positive influence on everyone here and everything we do."

Ryan has been the face of the program for three decades, through good times and bad. She can't wait to find out what Wright can accomplish before she takes her degree (you don't graduate from Virginia, you Take Your Degree).

One early accomplishment this season: orchestrating a major nonconference win over a top-10 opponent. The Cavaliers made a statement with a last-second 83-82 win over Tennessee in Knoxville on Nov. 17. It marked the program's first such win in 12 years, dating to a victory over then-No. 7 Vanderbilt in December 1996.

"We grew up a lot in that game," admitted Wright, who lit up the Lady Vols for a career-high 35 points. "We knew we had potential and we stepped up. Me and our other captain, Aisha Mohammed, took on new leadership roles and everybody found faith in themselves to get it done. You could see the confidence on our faces."

That was something new for a Virginia team that in recent years has had a knack for coming close to beating highly ranked teams, but coming up short. Perhaps change is coming.

"I can see it in everyone that they know what it takes," Wright, the 2007 ACC rookie of the year, said. "In the past, we have tended to get a little timid at times. At Tennessee, we didn't get fazed by the opponent or the crowd. We didn't worry about it."

Coach Ryan gives all the credit to Wright for the team's new attitude.

"The Tennessee game was a great breakthrough for Monica," said Ryan, a member of the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame with close to 700 career wins. "She took the lead and pulled everyone else along with her. She made it clear to the others that we were going to win. She played possessed and the team picked up on her energy. Monica willed us to that win."

Wright is a student of the game, and as a Woodbridge, Va., native, she is well-versed in the history of Virginia basketball. She knows about Staley, Dena Evans, Tonya Cardoza, Wendy Palmer and the Burge twins. She spent the past two years watching and learning from UVa career assist leader Sharnee Zoll.

"I'm ready to lead and I learned a lot from Sharnee," said Wright, who was an honorable mention All-American last year as just a second year (don't call her a junior this year; in University of Virginia parlance, she's referred to as a "third year"). "I say some of the same things that she used to say and I try to teach the younger players the way she used to teach me. The Tennessee win was my thank you to her and to the coaches. We showed what we could do."

Teaching the younger players is a role Wright has embraced out of both desire and necessity. Third year Paulisha Kellum was supposed to be the starting point guard this season, but she went out early with a season-ending ACL injury. All-America candidate Lyndra Littles, a fourth year, was supposed to anchor one of the top front lines in the country before getting sidelined by academics until at least next semester.

So Wright needs four talented freshmen to survive and thrive in the rough-and-tumble ACC and into the NCAA tournament. She wants to be a part of changing fortunes in Charlottesville.

"The one place where her life has changed dramatically is she's our one true leader," said Ryan, a seven-time ACC coach of the year. "She has the right demeanor and she's putting her stamp on our team every day. Monica's got no problem being both enforcer and encourager to the young ones. She has the personality that people take to and the character that people want to follow. When you're with Monica, you feel like you are a big part of her life."

Wright already has scored more than 1,000 points and returns as Virginia's leading scorer this season. But she wanted to be more.

"I see myself being more vocal and more dominant," Wright said. "I want my teammates to be able to come to me to talk about anything on and off the court. I focused on my game and my shortcomings over the summer, so this fall and winter I could focus on team goals and what everybody else needs."

Those shortcomings included Wright's midrange game and 3-point shooting, both of which Ryan says have improved significantly. Wright also spent time conditioning and urged her teammates to do the same so they don't run out of gas late in games. That work paid off against Tennessee, when Britnee Millner hit the game-winning free throw with five seconds to play.

One area that didn't need an overhaul? Defense, where Wright should be a leading candidate for the WBCA national defensive player of the year award.

"I take pride in that and I get a lot of help from my teammates," said the ACC All-Defensive Team member. "We have good anticipation and help each other out. Coach Ryan drills us all the time on the fundamentals, and we always talk about the other teams' field goal percentage. Every game we have a number we want to hold an opponent to."

Ryan is not surprised at Wright's success on that end of the court, and she has no qualms about assigning Monica to guard the best player on the other team.

"She never takes a play off," Ryan said. "Not in practice and not in a game, she's always working. Her skill level gets better and better."

So do her stats. Wright has seen an improvement in each of her first two seasons in her scoring (from 15.1 points per game to 17.6 ppg) and field goal percentage (.412 to .468), along with slight increases in blocks and steals.

But team numbers and championships are of much greater importance, and Wright knows a battle looms in the near future that will determine the course of the program's future.

Which brings us back to that history woven into the fabric of everyday life on the Grounds (don't call it a campus or the locals will look at you and roll their eyes).

The previously mentioned Staley and Sampson took their UVa teams to five Final Fours and won a combined five national player of the year awards back in the 1980s and '90s. And Ryan's résumé with the program includes three Final Fours, 11 regular-season ACC titles and three ACC tournament titles.

But that history seems ancient for many associated with Cavaliers basketball now, and in the current sports culture sentiment of "What have you done for me lately?" And that's what Wright wants to change, starting with the ACC and the league rivals that have all made trips to the Final Four in the past three seasons.

"We know where we stand with the Big Three -- we're not one of them," said Wright, referring to conference powerhouses North Carolina, Duke and Maryland. "We definitely want to do something about that and an ACC title is the goal."

It won't be easy. Since 2000, Virginia's record against that ACC trio is 14-40. The Wahoos have dropped 12 in a row to Carolina and 14 straight to Duke.

Maryland's 2006 national championship was especially hard to swallow. UVa has now lost six consecutive games to their neighbors to the north. In fact, you have to go back to the 2004-05 season for a win over a member of the Big Three.

Last season epitomized the Cavs' frustration: a fourth-place ACC finish (behind guess who?) with four conference losses by single-digits (do we have to tell you which teams beat them?) and a semifinal exit in the ACC tournament (at the hands of a team whose initials are UNC).

"They are so prestigious and they are proven winners," Wright said. "Last year we competed with them and this year it's imperative to beat them and be one of the top teams in the ACC. We want to join them so people talk about the Big Four."

Lofty goals, but attainable ones. And there is more talent on the way; last week, Ryan signed one of the top recruiting classes in the nation for 2009.

Until then, Wright will have her chance to make history with four upcoming dates against the Big Three. It was, after all, John Paul Jones (the naval commander, not the big money donor) whose memorable Revolutionary War line was, "I've not yet begun to fight!" Wright's fight begins in mid-January with a trip to Chapel Hill.

"I remember watching Staley and Evans and all the rest," recalled Wright. "They impacted the history of this program and of this game. I'm comfortable being a part of it."

Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.

Beth Mowins

Women's Basketball
Beth Mowins is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.