Now atop women's hill, Virginia's Ryan is glad she made climb


Debbie Ryan thinks it was in the early 1980s, maybe 1982, when she had "The Conversation."

Ryan, the Virginia women's basketball coach, was in the midst of a 15-13 season that ended with a 4-9 Atlantic Coast Conference record.

She was on the verge of packing it in.

"I was really thinking about getting out of this," Ryan said. "I was really down."

So she wandered into Dick Schultz's office. At the time, Schultz was athletic director at Virginia. Now he's the executive director of the NCAA.

"He sat down and showed me a vision of what he wanted the program to be," said Ryan, who is in her 14th year at Charlottesville. "He virtually talked me out of it [quitting]. He made it a lot easier for me to be successful."

Ryan has had success ever since. In the last five seasons, she has amassed a 129-29 record that includes three ACC regular-season titles and five NCAA tournament appearances, giving her the same exalted status as North Carolina State's Kay Yow and Maryland's Chris Weller. The Cavaliers are ranked No. 1 coming into tomorrow's 7:30 p.m. game against Maryland at Cole Field House.

Until last season, Ryan's teams had the reputation of tightening up in the clutch. They entered the ACC tournament as the top seed in three of the last five years, but the Cavaliers failed to win all three times.

And their NCAA tournament experience was pock-marked as well: They were eliminated three straight years by Tennessee.

It appeared that last season was going to follow the same script. But then the Cavaliers -- led by All-America guard Dawn Staley and her fellow junior backcourt mate Tammi Reiss -- beat N.C. State 67-64 in overtime to win the ACC tournament championship.

They advanced to the NCAA East Regional. After victories over Penn State and Providence, the Cavaliers had to meet their nemesis, Tennessee, again in the regional final to reach the Final Four.

The Volunteers had blasted Virginia by 33 the year before.

"I remember walking into the locker room before the season and telling them that if they ever didn't want to lift weights or if they thought they were where they wanted to be, that they should sit down and watch this tape [of the Tennessee game]," said Ryan.

"That team wanted to play Tennessee in the worst way. They wanted to be sure that we got a crack at them. It was a healthy thing for them and a blessing in disguise when we saw the draw."

The Cavaliers exorcised more than a few demons, beating Tennessee 79-75 in overtime to advance to the national semifinals. Though they lost to eventual champion Stanford, the stage was set for this season.

And it has been a great year. Virginia has been top-ranked for 13 of 14 weeks, and, excluding a controversial 73-71 loss to second-ranked Penn State in early January, the Cavaliers have hardly been threatened.

They have clinched the ACC regular-season championship. If they defeat Maryland and seventh-ranked N.C. State this week, the Cavaliers, who are averaging about 5,000 per game in attendance, will become the first team in league history to complete a 14-game women's conference schedule undefeated.

Ryan, who was born in Baltimore and has a grandmother who lives in Towson, says this team has been the most fun to coach, and not just because of all the talent.

"They've decided that they want to have some fun," said Ryan. "They handle any problems before they get to me. I just have to do the best I can to help them keep perspective."

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