March 19, 2009

Getting to 700 wins would certainly be special for longtime Virginia coach Debbie Ryan. Her 701st victory, though, would arguably be her best in 32 seasons with the Cavaliers.

Two victories from reaching the 700-win plateau, Ryan leads the 24th-ranked Cavaliers against Marist in the first round of the NCAA tournament Saturday night in Los Angeles.

Ryan is 698-297 with fifth-seeded Virginia, which went 23-9 this season and lost 76-53 to Duke - the top seed in the Berkeley Regional - in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament.

A win over 12th-seeded Marist (29-3), the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion, and a victory in the second round would give Ryan 700 wins. That would likely set up a meeting in the Trenton regional semifinals against top-ranked Connecticut, which went 33-0 this season.

Virginia, though, isn't looking that far ahead.

"I don't have any thoughts on that right now," senior forward Lyndra Littles said. "The only thoughts I have are on Marist. Right now we just have to take it one game at a time."

UConn is coached by Geno Auriemma, a former assistant to Ryan.

"I thought we would be in the West to start and I had a feeling they were going to put us in Trenton; that is where I'm from and it seems like we have a magnet to Connecticut - we always get pulled back in that direction," Ryan said.

The Cavaliers must first get past Marist, which is making its fourth straight trip to the NCAA tournament and enters on a nine-game winning streak. The Red Foxes advanced to the round of 16 in 2007 before falling to Tennessee, and they lost to LSU in the second round last season.

"It is a very, very difficult draw," Ryan said. "Marist is a great team with excellent coaching and I think that being in that bracket with (No. 4 seed) California is going to make for a great challenge for us but a whole lot of fun at the same time. Marist is a perennially strong team that always seems to have big upsets because people overlook them."

This matchup features some of the top forwards in the nation.

Littles and fellow all-ACC selection Monica Wright finished tied atop the conference with 20.5 points per game. Wright, a junior, led the Cavaliers with 3.2 assists and 2.9 steals a contest.

They'll have to deal with Marist junior Rachele Fitz, who led the MAAC with 20.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game to earn conference player of the year honors for the second straight season. Fitz, the Red Foxes' all-time leading scorer, finished eighth in the nation in field-goal percentage (60.5).

Marist is also led by senior point guard Julianne Viani, who set career bests this season with 15.2 points and 4.5 assists per game.

Viani earned tournament MVP honors by scoring 22 points and adding six assists to help Marist beat Canisius 78-63 in the MAAC championship.

"It has been an awesome ride," Viani said. "It hasn't gotten old, if anyone ever asks me that. You always want to raise the bar."

This is the first meeting between these teams. The winner will face California or 13th-seeded Fresno State on Monday.