Early in the first half of Saturday's game with UNC-Charlotte, the University of Virginia women's basketball team, ranked fifth in the country, was losing, 7-6, and it appeared that the Cavaliers might have a difficult time in their attempt to set a school-record start of 12-0.

Then it happened.

At Virginia, they call it "the spurt." The Cavaliers, using pressure defense and a fast break, raced to a 22-7 lead in the next few minutes and defeated UNC-Charlotte, 88-65.

Not one team this season has overcome Virginia's scoring streaks, including Old Dominion and Auburn, which was ranked eighth at the time. It was Auburn's only loss this season, and it was the Cavaliers' narrowest margin of victory: 13 points.

"Against Auburn, there was a short period at the end of the first half and then at the beginning of the second half that sealed the game," said Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan, whose team plays No. 18 North Carolina State on Tuesday night at home. "They made a good run at the end, but we were so far ahead that it was kinda . . . over."

These Cavaliers have exceeded Ryan's expectations. Last year, the expectations were too high, as Virginia faltered at season's end and lost in the first round of the NCAA playoffs. This season, Ryan scheduled tougher teams early to prepare for Atlantic Coast Conference play, and the Cavaliers have responded by outscoring their opponents by an average of 23.7 points and forcing 28 turnovers a game.

"The difference in the team this year is that they have the killer instinct," said Ryan. "It seems like when they get a team down, they don't let them get back. Last year we had this feeling, 'Well, when is it going to happen? When are they going to come back on us?' "

The Cavaliers have achieved their highest ranking ever with three sophomores and two juniors in the starting lineup. Yet more curious is how Virginia's leading scorers, point guard Donna Holt (15.8) and shooting guard Daphne Hawkins (18.0), came to Charlottesville.

Holt, a sophomore who last year broke the school record for steals in a season with 101 and currently is averaging close to five a game, was discovered when men's assistant coach Dave Odom was recruiting in Chicago. He brought back a newspaper article to Ryan that said Holt, a high school player, had listed Virginia as a school she was considering.

As it turned out, the reporter had made a mistake, and Virginia really hadn't been one of Holt's choices.

Ryan said Holt, who is as smooth as her idol, Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons, is the first "true point guard" she ever has coached. "You'd think Donna could play in the NBA," said Ryan.

Whereas Holt was wooed by a number of schools, Hawkins was not given much attention, although she was All-Met her senior year at High Point in Beltsville.

"It's a joke," said Ryan, describing how she landed Hawkins. "We started recruiting Daphne late February, early March (of her senior year). I went to see her in an all-star game, and I started recruiting her hard at that point, and nobody else was really interested in her. It was ridiculously easy."

Ryan told Hawkins she probably wouldn't start until her junior or senior year. And after being redshirted her first year because of an injury, Hawkins averaged only 5.5 points last year in a reserve role. But this season, when three-year starter Kim Silloway broke her collarbone in preseason practice, Hawkins made the starting five. Her biggest game was 31 points against Old Dominion.

"She's the type of player who needs room in an offensive scheme," Ryan said. "I might have had her too strapped into the offense (last year)."

Silloway has become the team's first player off the bench. She adds experience, is a good ball-handler and is close to setting the school's all-time assist mark. "I look to Kim as leader," said Holt. "She's smart and makes a lot of sense."

The Cavaliers' motivator is small forward Nancy Mayer, who was first-team all-ACC last year and led the Cavaliers in scoring. This season, she is averaging 14.5 points.

The other starters are forward Trina Thomas and center Laurie Carter, the team's leading rebounder (6.3). Forwards Kristian Anderson, Liza Lank and Dawn Bryant get a good deal of playing time.

Tuesday night's game against N.C. State will be a good test. "If we lose one, then two, then three -- that's going to tell me a lot about the character of the team," said Ryan. "If we lose one, then come back and win three or four, we'll know we're going to be okay." American 96, UNC-Wilmington 75: Junior Jody Thornton broke her own AU single-game assist record of 12 with 15 in last night's victory in Cassell Center. Thornton's 6.7 assists per game lead the Colonial Athletic Association.