There are things you’ve done so many times that you don’t think you could possibly forget how – until you do indeed forget.
Such as knowing when to get off on Interstate 64 in Charlottesville to go to a Virginia basketball game. From 1991-96, I went to see the Cavaliers at their old arena, University Hall, dozens and dozens of times.
Yet when I went back Tuesday to see U.Va. – which now plays in the palatial John Paul Jones Arena across the street from U-Hall _ I somehow couldn’t remember the right exit.
That, however, is about the only thing to fade from my memory concerning that period in regard to coach Debbie Ryan’s program. It started with players such as Dawn Staley, Tammi Reiss and the Burge twins and ended with a team led by Wendy Palmer and Jenny Boucek.
During those six seasons, U.Va. went 169-28, made two Final Fours (the Cavaliers also had gone to the 1990 Final Four before I moved to the Commonwealth), made the Elite Eight three times, won six ACC regular-season and two league tournament titles, were the only team to beat North Carolina in the Tar Heels’ 1994 championship season, and came the closest of any team to beating UConn in its perfect 1995 title year.
Short of winning an NCAA title themselves, the Cavs were as good as any women’s hoops program in the country during that span. But it’s intriguing to me how it happened maybe just a bit too early for maximum exposure, and how that – and the emergence of Duke – are perhaps the biggest reasons why U.Va. didn’t stay on the highest tier in the sport and may be a bit shortchanged by some observers in regard to the program’s importance in women’s basketball’s growth.
This is not to say that people don’t remember the Cavs’ best teams or admire Ryan’s success and longevity. But when you saw it in person, it obviously leaves a much stronger impression.
However, 1996 really was a turning-point year. I started writing about women’s basketball for ESPN.com that fall – after I’d moved to Kansas City. Message boards and other modes of communication were really kicking in then, as was expanded television coverage. The best of U.Va.’s teams missed most of that.
The Cavaliers haven’t been Final Four contenders since March 1996, when freshman Chamique Holdsclaw led Tennessee in a comeback victory at U-Haul in the East Regional final that Palmer told me she still thinks about all the time.
Between her and Boucek, who were close friends and still keep in touch, Palmer is the one who handled the loss relatively well. In comparison anyway. It still took her hours to leave the U.Va. locker room after that defeat, but she said she wasn’t the last one in there crying. Boucek was.
In the 13 years since then, though, the Cavs’ best NCAA performances have been reaching the Sweet 16, which U.Va. did in ’97 and 2000. They haven’t been to the ACC tournament final since 1994.
There’s plenty to agonize over. What if the 1991 national championship game, which Tennessee won 70-67 in overtime, had gone in the Cavs’ favor? Would winning that title have made them more confident and less fearful the next year, when nerves got to them as much as Stanford did in the ’92 national semifinals?
U.Va. fell 66-65 to Stanford, which went on to crush Western Kentucky 78-62 in the final. I’ve always believed – with no disrespect to coach Tara VanDerveer or the Cardinal – that if U.Va. had won it all in ’91, the pressure would have been much more manageable for 1992. Then during Staley’s and Reiss’ senior year, there wouldn’t have been that lingering, unspoken fear that they were going to come oh-so-close but still fall short.
It was the same dread that seemed to get to Stanford in 1997 (Kate Starbird’s and Jamila Wideman’s senior year) and to Duke in 2004 (Alana Beard’s senior year).
Athletes and coaches frequently will say they don’t carry over one year to the next, and that in the heat of the moment, they aren’t thinking about the past. Well, some will say that. Sometimes, it’s true. But I think they often do carry it over. When a team or player has had a big disappointment en route to trying to achieve a goal, it can be a huge hurdle psychologically to get over if they’re later in the same position.
I don’t want in any way to suggest that it isn’t difficult to win multiple titles the way Tennessee and UConn have. It definitely is hard, because each season brings its own challenges. But there’s a flip side to this. Doing it once can be a big aid to doing it again. Not just from the players’ perspective, but for the coaches, too.
Of course, Pat Summitt and Geno Auriemma want to win as many titles as possible, and losing when they have one in sight is still painful. However, they had less potential for “panic” after they’d already won one. They no longer had that voice in their heads saying, “Oh, no, what if we fall short again?”
Virginia felt that in the ’92 national semifinals. And sometimes just that little extra emotional burden can be the difference in a very tight game.
Then two other things didn’t go U.Va.’s way, both concerning recruits. Katie Smith didn’t come to Virginia in the fall of ‘92– although she loved Ryan and the school – because she wanted to stay close to home at Ohio State. Conversely, La’Keshia Frett didn’t go to U.Va. the next fall because she didn’t really want to stay close to home (Hampton, Va.) and instead opted for Georgia.
The Buckeyes, led by Smith, beat U.Va. in the ’93 Elite Eight. Had she been a Cavalier, I have zero doubt U.Va. would have been in the Final Four. Now, could the Cavs, with Smith, have beaten Texas Tech in Sheryl Swoopes’ magical year? Don’t know, but I think it would have been close.
Then, imagine if both Smith and Frett were with the Cavs for the ’94, ‘95 and ’96 tournaments. Virginia was soundly beaten by Southern Cal in the ‘94 Sweet 16. But the Cavs lost by just four points to UConn in ‘95 – on the Huskies’ home court in Storrs. (And with a critical 5-second call against U.Va. trying to inbound the ball late in the game down by three points. A later review of the film showed the actual count to be about 3 1/2 seconds.)
And then there was that ‘96 Elite Eight game, where U.Va had a double-digit lead in the second half on its home court … but still fell to Tennessee. It so happened that Smith’s career at Ohio State had ended in the second round against Tennessee that year. And then Frett’s Georgia team lost to Tennessee in the national championship game.
When I was at U.Va.’s game with Furman on Tuesday, I ran into some friends who have been longtime loyal Cav supporters. I met Brenda and Jim in 1994. Now they’re retired and still come to all of the Cavs’ home games. Chatting with them, I found myself going through the whole, “What if?” chain about the Cavaliers – a chain that, in my mind, puts them tantalizing close to winning all six NCAA titles in that time period.
What IF U.Va made one more shot in regulation and won the ’91 title game? What IF that propelled them to the ’92 title? What IF Smith left home and went to U.Va., helping them win the ’93 title? What IF Frett stayed home and went to U.Va., joining Smith and putting the Cavs in the ’94, ’95 and ’96 Final Fours? How many of those titles might they have won?
Now, I know what you might be saying: “Oh, come on, knock it off! There’s no point in speculating on all this stuff.”
Indeed, I’m reminded of the first coach I ever interviewed, longtime Missouri track and field mentor Rick McGuire. I asked him once – when I was a freshman in college – to speculate on what might happen if …
He laughed and said, “You know what they say: ‘If ‘its’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, what a Merry Christmas we’d all have.’ ”
Point being, there really is no practical use in speculating on what COULD have happened. But it’s still hard not to do it. Watching U.Va. up close those six years gave me a perspective I really did not have previously about college sports. And that’s how just one or two things that do or don’t happen can change the landscape monumentally.
I don’t think Ryan did anything wrong or could have done much different. She all but had her hands on the championship trophy that entire time. It just didn’t happen.
Certainly, other programs can look back on times in their history when they came close again and again, but never quite won it all. It’s ironic, in fact, that Duke is one of those programs – when it was the emergence of Duke that, I think, hurt U.Va. recruiting-wise.
Before Duke elevated under Gail Goestenkors, women’s basketball recruits with super-high academic credentials who were interested in playing in the ACC were more likely to go to U.Va. After Duke began its climb, it seemed that type of recruit more often chose the Blue Devils.
Anyway, admittedly, looking into the past this way doesn’t change anything. But watching the Cavaliers on Tuesday reminded me how hard coaches have to work even to get a window open to possibly winning an NCAA title. Then, it’s often just a bit of good luck that actually gets them that championship. Or bad luck that keeps them from it.