Wright named player of year

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Virginia's Monica Wright left no doubt about who the best player in the Atlantic Coast Conference was this year, sweeping the individual awards.

Now, the ACC player of the year and Virginia's career scoring leader can chase what she really wants -- to lift the program back to the lofty heights that once were the norm.

"It's not only a focus for me, but it's been a focus for this team ever since our first day of practice," Wright said. "In our huddle, we say 'championship' before every practice, before every game, so it's a focus for our team and it's been instilled in us all season."

The ACC scoring leader with a 23-point average and steals leader with 3.6 per game, Wright was a preseason All American, and Thursday added the player of the year award to the defensive player honor she got a day earlier. She could also become the first Cavaliers player to be a first-team All-American since the team began being selected in 1994-95.

Her focus, though, is on keeping her last team at Virginia playing as long as it can.

"We're going to start with the ACC tournament and from there we're going to move on and definitely work our hardest to get this program back to a championship mentality," she said after scoring 27 points in her final home game, a 55-46 victory against Virginia Tech.

After the game, Wright's jersey number was hung from the rafters at John Paul Jones Arena, but it's the other banners -- the ones that mark the rich postseason tradition of the women's program at Virginia -- that Wright hopes to help add to before she's gone.

Virginia advanced at least as far as the third round of the NCAA tournament 12 times in 14 seasons between 1988 and 2000, including three consecutive trips to the Final Four -- and one to the national championship game -- with Dawn Staley as its point guard between 1990-92.

The Cavaliers haven't gotten past the second round since 2000, losing in the second round each of the past two years. Last year, Wright scored 26 points in the fifth-seeded Cavaliers' 99-73 loss to fourth-seeded California in the second round.

This year's journey begins Friday when the No. 3 Cavaliers play sixth-seeded North Carolina State or 11th-seeded Clemson in the conference tournament at Greensboro, N.C.

Maryland guard Kim Rodgers, a former AAU teammate, said Wright has taught all Virginia's opponents that their preparation for the Cavaliers starts with trying to contain Wright.

"She's awesome," Rodgers said, recalling how hard Wright worked to improve. "When you match that kind of work ethic with that natural ability, she's awesome. ... When we come up against her, it's Monica Wright -- she's the focal point every time the team plays her."

Virginia coach Debbie Ryan said numbers like Wright's 2,474 career points and all the accolades she has received only tell part of the story when it come to the Woodbridge native.

"She came in here with all the right stuff," Ryan, in her 33rd year, said. "She's just an incredible person. If you could see her in a group of children you would just be amazed. Children just flock to her. They can't wait for the chance to sit in her lap. She is so caring and so kind to people, whether it's a senior citizen or a 5-year-old little boy.

"She's taught everyone here about what character really is."

And about hard work, and what it takes to get the most out of your talent.

China Crosby, a McDonald's All-American from New York, arrived this season and was quickly taken under Wright's wing, learning that she had to step up her workout regimen.

"She's like a motor. She just keeps running and running," Crosby said of the 5-foot-11 shooting guard even before the season began. "After the 40th sprint, she's still running."

And leading, and mentoring, and putting Ryan's mind at ease.

"It's just awesome," she said. "You can't have it better than that."

Wright's leadership also shows the ownership she has taken in the program.

"She understands things about how people work and she knows how to talk to different types of people in different types of ways," Ryan said Thursday. "She sort of knows when she has to pull someone aside and when she can talk to someone in front of the whole group.

"And she's not afraid to be the enforcer, which is hard to get kids in this day and age to do. She's not afraid to tell someone, `That's not the way we do it here."

In return, she has teammates wanting to honor her by winning, something they were not able to do against Maryland on the night Wright passed Staley as Virginia's top scorer.

After they struggled in the first half against Virginia Tech in Wright's home finale, she was receiving intravenous fluids at halftime while her teammates were plotting a comeback.

"I kept reminding the team that we owed Moni one," guard Paulisha Kellam said.

In the balance of things, they probably owe her more than that.