Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Quest for second upset fails, but all's not hopeless for Hokie womens basketball

BLACKSBURG -- National relevance is nice. The Virginia Tech women's basketball team enjoyed that sensation -- a rare one around here -- after shocking 10th-ranked North Carolina on Thursday night.

For three days, the Hokies could walk tall.

They could call home and brag.

They could look at the ACC standings, see four teams below them, and smile.

But three days is all that lasted. Virginia star Monica Wright and her No. 25 Cavaliers stifled any hopes Tech had of beating ranked opponents in back-to-back games for the first time in school history, pulling away in the second half for a 70-56 victory on Monday night.

A missed opportunity for Tech? Sure. Still, the Hokies are better than they've been in several years. That much is obvious. And that is a start.

While sustaining any national relevance seems unlikely this year, they do have a chance to matter again on this campus, something that looked like a longshot after they stumbled to a second straight 2-12 ACC record last season.

So that must be the goal. Win a handful of conference games. Nab a win in the ACC tournament. Generate some good vibes heading into next season, ensuring that the UNC victory wasn't a lonely highlight in another lost campaign.

It's possible for Tech to do that. Flukes happen, but rarely in women's basketball does an unranked team knock off a top-10 program. The talent gap between haves and have-nots is so pronounced, simply because there are fewer world-class game-changers available to recruit.

Great teams can horde talent and go undefeated for entire seasons. Top seeds can breeze to the Final Four in March. And even on off nights on the road, programs such as North Carolina typically cruise over clubs like Tech.

But the Tar Heels didn't. Which means the Hokies have a chance.

"I've been saying all along that they're a much-improved team," said Debbie Ryan, whose seen plenty of hoops in her 33 years as UVa coach. "They have veteran players. Utahya Drye and Lindsay Biggs are great players in their own right, and then you add the rest of the complement of players around them.

"I think Alyssa Fenyn adds a different dimension to their team. I think that Nikki Davis is very improved over last year. I just think that they're a whole lot better than they were a year ago at this time -- or even at the end of the year."

The victory over UNC rubber-stamped that notion. The loss to UVa -- in a game Tech held a brief second-half lead -- served as a reminder that the margin for error remains slim in Blacksburg.

"If we don't play together, we're out of sync and don't execute on offense," Davis said, "clearly we can get beat by anyone."

Wright, UVa's all-time scoring leader, can beat a lot of teams on her own. Her 27 points -- including 11 during UVa's 26-10 run to take command -- was too much for the Hokies, who remain confident that they can compete with most of their ACC peers.

"I think that our depth helps us," Tech coach Beth Dunkenberger said. "We've been so injury-plagued last year that even kids that were coming off the bench were injured, and some kids that had surgery as soon as the season was over. So we're young coming off the bench, but I think that we've got some great talent there."

Enough to be nationally relevant for three days -- and locally relevant for an entire season.

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