In a corridor of University Hall in Charlottesville, Melissa Mahoney, a University of Virginia sophomore, sips a soft drink and smiles, then repeats a visitor's question.
"Am I tired of basketball?" she asks, after an 81-79 overtime loss to 10th-ranked North Carolina State. "No, I'm not tired of it. In fact, the worst feeling comes at the end of the season, after the last game. Because then I know I won't have it to look forward to the next day."
Mahoney, of Falls Church, is known to most of her friends and fans as Mo.
A former star at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, two years ago she became the first woman to receive a full athletic scholarship from the University of Virginia.
She will not be the last.
"We can have 12 players on scholarship; we don't now, but we will next year," says Debbie Ryan, coach of the women's basketball team at Virginia. Ryan says Northern Virginia, home of six of her players, is a prime area to scout.
Northern Virginia's reputation as a gold mine of women's basketball talent began about four years ago when Marshall High School's Betsy Bailey and Robinson's Ginger Rouse drew national attention from recruiters. bBailey signed up with the University of Maryland and Rouse chose North Carolina State.
The area's reputation continues today. Serious players hit the courts year-round, playing summer basketball and all the pickup games they can find. Colleges, encouraged by the Title IX Act requiring equal opportunities for women athletes, have expanded their programs for women and, with that, have made available more scholarship money than ever.
High school coaches are well aware of the talent in Northern Virginia. Despite some problems in getting support for women's teams at the high school level, coaches say women's basketball is becoming stronger than ever.
Addison Carley, coach at Robinson Secondary School, the second-ranked team in the area, says he no longer worries about the lack of spectator support.
"I can't let that distract me," he says. "A lot of parents are counting on scholarships for their girls who play."
Carley says at least two of his players are almost sure to receive strong college offers. One is Theresa Rouse, a 5-foot-11 "pure shooter," says Carley. She is Ginger Rouse's younger sister. The other is Debbie Young, a 6-foot-1 forward for Robinson.
Colleges scouts also are courting three other Northern Virginia players -- Herndon's Bev Wiggins, T.C. Williams' Cathy Grimes and Lake Braddock's Barb Murphy.
At George Mason University in Fairfax, the women's basketball roster reads like a Northern Virginia all-star team. Six of the 10 players, including the two leading scorers and the top three freshmen, played for Northern Virginia high schools.
George Mason has been two or three games under .500 all season, which coach Pat Layne and other observers consider respectable for a school competing against Division II (mid-size) colleges for the first time. Layne is quick to give credit to her Northern Virginia players.
"I don't have the finances to recruit out of state, except through the mail," says Layne, who coached at Woodbridge High School for three years before coming to George Mason in 1977. "I have to get to know players in this area, and I really feel this is a talent-laden basketball area. The caliber of play gets better every year. I know it's 10 times better at George Mason since I came here, and a lot of our players are local."
In fact, when Layne was recruiting last year, she drove to Herndon High School and came back with 60 percent of her starting team. Two of the three players she signed -- Lavon Jones and Norma Horne -- have been starters all season. The third, Ann Johnson, has been coming off the bench with a .620 shooting percentage.
In a recent 68-35 victory over Notre Dame of Baltimore, Johnson and Jones combined for 37 points. Jones, at 5-foot-11, has been among the area's top 10 rebounders all season, hauling down an average of 10 rebounds a game.
"The three of them were good friends in high school," Layne says of her prize trio."They had other offers -- Eastern Kentucky, Morgan State, Assumption. They wanted to stay together and play close to home so their family and friends could watch them. So they came here."
Layne was able to offer financial aid to her players for the first time last fall and was given six full scholarships to distribute any way she felt would be effective. Of six freshmen on this year's team, all received partial or full grants, Layne said.
At the University of Virginia, the school is bigger and the competition in Division I (major colleges) is tougher. But it's Northern Virginia's 5-foot-8 Mahoney "we go to everytime we're in trouble," says coach Ryan. "We set her up as much as possible."
A case in point is the game early last month when Virginia (officially the Cavaliers, but known to insiders as the Wahoos or simply "Hoos) hosted the nationally ranked North Carolina State Wolfpack. Before the game, Ryan described the Wolfpack as the team that had "blown us out for three years."
With 10 minutes gone in the first half, upset-mined Virginia had a 26-16 lead. Ryan, happy with her team's play overall, urged Mahoney to shoot more. l
During a time out, an enormous banner was unfurled in the bleachers under the Virginia basket. It read: "Lady 'Hoos Never Fall When Melissa Has The Ball." It was held by five male students.
By halftime, Mahoney had scored 10 points, connecting on five of nine shots from the floor, including a quick, underhanded driving layup and four shots from 12 to 20 feet outside. She also had two assists, and Virginia led 44-36.
In the second half, North Carolina State showed why it is nationally ranked, and the Wolfpack showed a roughouse-style of play that is no longer uncharacteristic of women's basketball.
After less than three minutes of play in the second half, the Wolfpack, behind the shooting of its All-America center Genia Beasley (32 points for the night), closed to 46-44. Virginia was being intimidated, and Ryan called time out.
"Yes, they are going to hit you, but that's tough," Ryan told her team. "You'll have to handle it tough! You're playing with a total lack of intensity."
Just before she sent the team back onto the floor, she added, "Get the ball to Mo!"
The Wolfpack began swarming around Mahoney, so she dumped off passes to former Langley player Jackie LaBerge and to a former All-Met from Holy Cross, Chrissy Reese. LaBerge had 16 points for the night and Reese had 17 points.
But it was Mahoney who repeatedly stayed off rallies from the Wolfpack with her passing and clutch shooting.
With three seconds left, North Carolina tied the game at 73-73. Ryan's instructions before the overtime playoff were simple: "The ball has got to get to Melissa. Get it to mo."
Double-teamed during the five-overtime, Mahoney failed to connect on three attempts, her last shot missing as the buzzer sounded. The Wolfpack won, 81-79. Mahoney led Virginia in scoring with 18 points, hit on eight of 16 attempts from the floor, two of two from the free-throw line, and had five assists.
"I want Mo to square around like she's going to shoot everytime she gets the ball," Ryan says. "She's such a good shooter, I want to make even more of a threat out of her."
The college season ends in late March, but Ryan already is scouting. Once again, Ryan is looking in Northern Virginia. "We've got our eyes on a bunch of juniors from up there," she says.
As women's basketball gains strength, Ryan expects basketball fans to see better and better teams.
"The women's game is getting tougher all the time," she says. "The refs are letting them play more. We're still not drawing big crowds (about 250 attended the North Carolina State game), but the people who come out to see us are seeing a lot more class than they used to see in the women's game."