By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 21, 2009
When the Virginia women's basketball team lost Lyndra Littles, one of its senior leaders and top returning scorers, for the fall semester because of academic reasons, Coach Debbie Ryan used the absence as an opportunity to help her team and Littles get better.
The 6-foot-1 forward was ineligible to play in the first nine games, but she was allowed to practice with the Cavaliers, and Ryan had her play mostly at point guard during that stretch. That forced Littles to improve both her ballhandling and communication skills, and it gave her a chance to see the game from a different perspective.
"What she's been able to accomplish since she came back is extraordinary," Ryan said. "She's done a tremendous job of being a lot more versatile, of playing on the wing as well as the post. She's tough to handle in the post, but we felt like her three-point shooting improved so much that we could move her out a little bit more, and that was very helpful to us."
The Cavaliers (23-9) relied heavily on Littles and junior guard Monica Wright, who averaged 20.5 points apiece and were both named to the all-ACC first team, to reach the NCAA tournament for the 23rd time. The fifth-seeded Cavaliers will face 12th-seeded Marist (29-3) in a first-round East Region game in Los Angeles on Saturday.
Littles has been a consistent scorer since she arrived in Charlottesville in 2005; her 1,863 career points rank fourth in program history behind Dawn Staley, Heather Burge and Wendy Palmer. She developed a physical, athletic style by playing with boys -- particularly her cousin Rafael DeLeon, a walk-on forward at Temple -- while growing up in Southeast Washington. At Dupont Park Adventist School, Littles played for both the girls' and boys' teams.
"I hated playing with girls. They whine. They're too afraid to get dirty," said Littles, who attended Archbishop Carroll High School. "So I would go down to Anacostia Park and play with the guys. Just run one-on-one: 'I bet I can beat you.' They'd look at a girl and say, 'Oh no you can't.' It's not even that I would do well all the time, but the physicality was always different."
Not being able to play in games for the first month of the season wasn't hard for Littles, as it gave her an opportunity to work on expanding her range. She was 25 of 56 (.446) from beyond the three-point arc this season after making 17 of 46 attempts (.370) in her first three seasons combined. In ACC games this season, she was 20 of 39, which put her second in the conference with a .513 percentage.
The suspension also gave Littles -- who describes herself as a loner -- a chance to take a step back from the game and "just have a little bit of solitude to myself," she said. The positive way she responded to the suspension showed her how much she has matured since she came to Virginia.
"If it would've happened my first or second year, I probably would've folded," Littles said. "I don't think I would've been mentally prepared for it, and I wouldn't have known how to handle it. When you're young, some things are always about me, and you don't really see the bigger picture. . . . But I was happy on the sidelines cheering. I wasn't sad, I wasn't jealous, I was just happy to help."
Littles wasn't allowed to travel with the team, but she made sure she stayed in touch. "For a couple of games when I wasn't there, I'd call our academic adviser and I'd tell her: 'Take the phone in there! I want to talk to them!' " Littles said.
During Virginia's biggest nonconference game, a road game against two-time defending NCAA champion Tennessee on Nov. 17, Littles watched the game from inside the Cavaliers' locker room at John Paul Jones Arena along with former teammate Enongé Stovall.
Littles had a marker in her hand, and any time she saw one of the Cavaliers make a mistake, she wrote it down on a dry-erase board. At halftime, she went out to her car -- cellphone reception in the locker room is poor, she said -- and called her teammates with instructions. After Virginia secured its 83-82 victory, only its second win over the Lady Vols in 13 tries, Littles and Stovall made signs and drove out to the Charlottesville airport to greet the Cavaliers' charter flight.
"She was bouncing up and down in the terminal," Ryan said. "I think it was great for her to do that, because her teammates felt that she was part of things, and it gave them a sense of camaraderie."
Littles scored 17 points in her first game back, against Monmouth on Dec. 18, and led the Cavaliers in scoring in 12 of the 23 games she played. She hopes to play in the WNBA later this year.
"I think she'll probably play on the wing at the next level, which is one of the reasons why we wanted to put her out there," Ryan said. "Mainly it makes her a better player seeing the floor from a different perspective, being able to handle the ball. She's able to defend, which will make her a much more versatile and marketable player."