The 1997 season was a triumphant season, considering what the Cavaliers had to overcome and still reach the NCAA Sweet Sixteen for the 11th consecutive year.
Before the season even started, Virginia was faced with the monumental task of replacing two-time All-American Wendy Palmer. In addition, Monick Foote had surgery on her ankle prior to the season, making her status at the start of the season questionable. Plus, freshman forward Lisa Hosac was diagnosed with mononucleosis during preseason practice.
But the two definite weapons the Cavaliers could count on were senior point guard Tora Suber and sophomore forward DeMya Walker. Coach Debbie Ryan had to build the rest of the team around the high-low combination of Suber and Walker.
The Cavaliers opened the season ranked 10th in the AP poll and ninth in the USA Today poll. Virginia struggled in their first two games of the season, winning an ugly game at Pittsburgh 64-55 and losing at American 69-67. Foote, who did not participate in the two preseason exhibition games, paced the Cavaliers with 18 points in the win over Pitt. Two days later against American, the Cavaliers looked out of sync and lost to unranked American 69-67. Despite four Cavaliers scoring in double figures, the Eagles hit a three-pointer with 20 seconds left in the game to give them a two-point lead. Suber was fouled and hit two free throws to tie the game, but AU's Nicole Grant took the inbounds pass, drove the length of the court and hit a 12-foot jumper with two seconds left to win the game. The loss would drop the Cavaliers seven spots to number 14.
Virginia returned home looking for a solid team effort and got it with a 71-33 drubbing of St. Francis at University Hall. Foote led the team with 17 points, her third straight game in double figures. The win built the team's confidence for the nationally televised match-up against seventh-ranked Vanderbilt, but Virginia had not yet solidified its presence in the paint.
"We really missed Palmer in the first three games, and that's what I was worried about," said Ryan. She was such good defensive player."
Walker and Brown, both sophomores were called upon to defend the low post. The Cavalier defense held Vanderbilt to 29.6 percent shooting as Virginia notched a significant 65-49 win over the Commodores. Suber unleashed a barrage of shots, including a six-point spurt late in the game, to lead the Cavaliers with 22 points.
With the win over Vanderbilt, Virginia moved up two spots in the poll and looked ahead to a trip to fifth-ranked Georgia. Perhaps what most people will remember about this game is the frightening fall by Suber in the first half which resulted in a two-day hospital stay. The Cavaliers played on and kept the score within six points for most of the game, but the Bulldogs closed out the game with a 17-2 run. Virginia left Athens, Ga. with a 77-56 loss and without Suber who remained in the hospital for two days with a spinal cord contusion.
The Cavaliers returned home to open the ACC season with a December match-up with Wake Forest. The Cavaliers, still ranked 12th, had to change their game plan without Suber, who for the first time in her career, would miss a game. And, for the first time this season, the post players took charge. Foote replaced Suber at point guard and Foote directed the ball down low and the post players accounted for 40 points in the 73-57 win over Wake Forest. DeMya Walker led all scorers with 20 points and recorded nine rebounds.
Virginia had a 12-day break following the Wake Forest game and hosted Rider and N.C. A & T on back-to-back nights. The 96-41 win over Rider marked the return of Suber to the court after her fall at Georgia. She scored eight points but the unlikely hero of this game was junior guard Mimi McKinney who scored a career-high 21 points.
The next night against N.C A & T, Walker was the center of attention as she scored a career-high 26 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked a school-record seven shots in the 82-31 win.
For the last three weeks of December, the word "rout" was a common thread in any story about Virginia women's basketball. In a three-game stretch, the Cavaliers had an average winning margin of 40.6 points. Virginia moved up to number 10 in the rankings and headed to the Holiday Classic Tournament at Florida International University.
At FIU, Virginia would continue its offensive burst with a 106-21 drubbing of Alabama State. The Cavaliers held the Hornets to one field goal in the game's first 31 minutes and set school records for margin of victory (85) and fewest points allowed in a half (seven). The win was the first impressive road win of the season. The next day, the Cavaliers claimed the tournament title with a 85-64 win over host Florida International. Walker, who scored 27 vs. Alabama State and 18 vs. FIU, was named the tournament 's Most Valuable Player while Foote and Suber were named to the All-Tournament team.
Virginia returned home victorious from their road trip to sunny Florida and moved up to ninth in the rankings. But the next game would cast a shadow over University Hall. Clemson, who had claimed four straight victories over the Cavaliers, came into enemy territory and handed Virginia a 58-44 defeat. The Tigers overcame a 10-point first-half deficit and took advantage of the charity stripe, outscoring Virginia 24-6 at the free throw line. Tiffany Bower led Virginia with 14 points while the top three scorers, Foote, Suber and Walker, could only produce 19 total points.
After the Clemson loss, Virginia did a serious soul search and knocked off six straight ACC wins. Fourteenth-ranked Duke was the first casualty (62-55) of this new found winning attitude. Virginia followed that with victories over Maryland (60-42), N.C. State (64-62), Georgia Tech (74-53), Florida State (67-57) and Wake Forest (74-43). Against Duke, the Cavaliers rallied from a 20-8 first half deficit to pull out the win. Against N.C. State, McKinney hit two shots in the last 23 seconds of the game, including the winning bucket with three seconds remaining, to pull out the thrilling victory over N.C. State.
With a six-game win streak in tact, Virginia moved up to number eight in the polls and hosted sixth-ranked North Carolina. The Tar Heels built up a 45-31 lead by half-time, but the Cavaliers came storming out in the second half and chipped away at the lead until they finally held a 68-67 lead with 1:16 remaining. The teams battled back and forth until UNC's Tracy Reid sank a lay-up with 16 seconds remaining in the game to lift the Tar Heels to the win. Suber recorded a career-high 35 points in the effort, an effort that Ryan summed up by saying, "We buried ourselves a couple of time, but we wouldn't die. I think it says a whole lot about this team's character. They weren't going to quit."
The team seemed unflappable for the next four games with wins over 17th-ranked Clemson (75-65), Maryland (73-49), Virginia Tech (90-41) and 25th-ranked N.C. State (91-66). With these wins, the Cavaliers moved from number 10 to nine in the poll. And then it happened. Perhaps the team was just coasting at this point, but they travelled to Atlanta where Georgia Tech surprised the Cavaliers 72-60. The Cavaliers trailed 33-31 at half-time and the Jackets proceeded to pour on the offense and control the boards. Tech out rebounded the Cavaliers 44-38 and held Virginia to only two points in the last four minutes of the game.
Distressed from the unsuccessful trip to Atlanta, the Cavaliers regrouped and put together a 73-44 win over Florida State in the last regular season home game for seniors Suber and Jackie Glessner. Walker put on a show with 21 points and seven rebounds. The win clinched a tie for second place in the ACC with two regular season road games on the slate.
The 11th-ranked Cavaliers traveled to 22nd-ranked Duke where Virginia experienced a power surge. The Cavaliers scored the games first 11 points with Foote scoring the first nine. At half-time, Virginia had built a 52-22 lead and by the game's end, the Cavaliers handed Duke a 86-56 loss-- its worst loss in four years. The win over the Blue Devils secured the second seed in the conference tournament for Virginia, and it was the momentum swing that the Cavaliers needed for their last regular season game at fifth-ranked North Carolina.
The season finale was a typical Tar Heel-Cavalier classic battle. But, for the second time this season, the scoreboard favored North Carolina 70-65. UNC led at half-time 37-32 but Virginia kept the game within two points for most of the second half. The Cavaliers played without Foote who had a severely sprained ankle. Bower stepped in for Foote and paced the Cavaliers with 21 points and 11 rebounds.
Despite the loss, Ryan remained optimistic heading into the conference tournament: "We dominated some things in that game that we didn't dominate last time. I felt very good about a lot of things that happened."
Virginia carried a 20-6 overall record and a 12-4 ACC record into the conference tournament. For the first time in six years, the Cavaliers did not enter the ACC Tournament as to top seed. Georgia Tech, the seventh seed, was Virginia's first round opponent. Looking to avenge the earlier loss to the Yellow Jackets, Virginia, now ranked 13th in the polls, opened the game with a 9-2 spurt and continued the outburst on 57 percent shooting from the field. Waker led the team with 21 points while Suber added 20. The Cavaliers played again without Foote who rested her sore ankle, and this time, it was McKinney who filled the void on offense, with 17 points. then again, the team had already made a long journey to overcome the absence of a two-time All-American, overcome injury and overcome the disappointment of close losses.
The win over Georgia Tech set up a contest with Clemson in the semifinals. Head Coach Jim Davis' comment the day before the contest was a premonition to the game's outcome. "It's our turn", said Davis when asked about the semifinal match-up with the Cavaliers. And he was right. The sixth-seeded Tigers forced an overtime game and then scored on a fast-break lay-up with 12 seconds remaining in the extra stanza. The Cavaliers inbounded the ball and brought the ball upcourt. Unsure of the time on the clock, McKinney heaved a desperation three-point shot that wedged between the backboard and rim, with no hope for a put-back, and then the time expired. Clemson won 77-75 to advance into the title game with North Carolina. The Tar Heels claimed the league trophy. All was not lost for Virginia as Suber and McKinney were named to the ACC All-Tournament Second Team.
The Cavaliers returned home from the ACC Tournament and had a week off before the NCAA Tournament pairings were announced. The selection committee placed Virginia as the fourth seed in the West Region and the Cavaliers were selected to host the subregional. The first round paired Virginia with Troy State and Utah with Iowa State.
As the Cavaliers prepared for their first round match-up, the injury bug struck again and delivered a blow to a pivotal player. Bower, who had started the previous three games in place of the injured Foote, tore her right achilles tendon on the eve of the tournament. Bower had carved a niche as the team's defensive stopper and one of the team's top rebounders.
With Bower's 33 written on armbands, the Cavaliers rallied around their fallen teammate and wasted little time in sending Troy State home with a 96-74 loss. Foote, who saw little playing time in the ACC Tournament, exploded for 22 points in the first half and ended the game with 26 points. Suber had 16 points and Walker, Hosac and Glessner each scored in double figures.
The victory set up a meeting with Utah who had easily disposed of Iowa State in the first round. Against the Utes, UVa trailed 16-12 midway through the first half before going on a 14-0 run to break the game open. Hosac led the Cavaliers with 13 points, including 2-2 from three-point range.
With the win, the Cavaliers reached the NCAA Sweet Sixteen for the 11th straight year. Virginia was headed to Missoula, Mont. for a showdown with third-ranked, and the West Region's top seed, Stanford.
Virginia had a storied history with Stanford. The Cavs and Cardinal met in the NCAA Final Four in 1990 and 1992. Both times, Stanford went on to win the national title. This year, however, Ryan hoped that the outcome would be different. Virginia jumped to a 8-2 lead when Stanford missed its first eight shots from the field, but Stanford responded with a 15-0 run. Foul trouble stymied the Virginia game plan in the first half and the Cardinal built a nine-point half-time lead. Foul trouble continued to plague the Cavaliers in the second half when Walker, the key to Virginia's defense, picked up her fourth foul with 18 minutes remaining in the game. The Cardinal took advantage of her absence and pushed its lead to 64-48. By the final horn, Stanford had put an end to Virginia's season with a 91-69 decision. Suber, in her final college performance, led the Cavaliers with 22 points, Foote had 12 and Renee Robinson had 10.
The Cavaliers had come a long way to play just one game, but then again, the team had already made a long journey to overcome the absence of a two-time All-American, overcome injury and overcome the disappointment of close losses.
1997 Season Highlights
23-8 overall, 12-4 ACC
Ranked 12 in AP and USA Today polls
14th Consecutive NCAA Tournament Appearance
11th Consecutive Sweet Sixteen Appearance
Second Place in ACC Regular Season
Reached Semifinals of ACC Tournament
Led nation in field goal percentage defense (.342)