CHARLOTTESVILLE -- For some people, insecurity brings on binges of eating. But University of Virginia women's basketball Coach Debbie Ryan couldn't enjoy her snack raids until the on-court doubts were gone.

Throughout last season, Ryan kept the box score from Virginia's 1985-86 season finale taped to her refrigerator door. The Cavaliers' 71-62 loss to James Madison in the first round of the NCAA tournament served as both an appetite suppressant and a reminder that her program was on the rise but not quite there. Ryan had built a national contender practically from scratch in 10 years at Virginia, but postseason failures -- no NCAA tournament wins and not even an appearance in the ACC tournament final -- had left their psychological scars.

"For the past few years, I would say, 'We can win the national championship and play with any team in the country,' but I don't know if deep down I really believed it," Ryan said. "Even when we went to Tennessee last year {and lost to the Volunteers, 66-58, in an NCAA tournament second-round game played on the eventual national champions' home court}, I didn't know for sure if our players were as good as their players or if I was really as good a coach as Pat Summitt. Now, I do know."

The Cavaliers, ranked No. 7 in the Associated Press poll, finally seem comfortable among the nation's elite. With their postseason struggles set aside, but not forgotten, they've plowed through a difficult schedule to a 15-1 record, including a 5-0 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Virginia has defeated good teams (five wins over top 20 clubs), routed poor ones (the Cavaliers' average scoring margin is plus-15.2 points per game) and it hung tough in a 75-59 loss to No. 1 Iowa. "It's obvious we were as good as the No. 1 team, even if the score didn't exactly show it," junior forward Dawn Bryant said. "Now we have to keep proving it."

The top-dog mentality is an unfamiliar one for the Cavaliers. Ever since Ryan, then just two years removed from the starting point guard spot at Ursinus College, took over the program in 1977, Virginia has been overachieving. The Cavaliers' six 20-or-more-win seasons in the past eight were crafted primarily through the whole exceeding the sum of its hard-working parts. "Everything is easy until the expectations begin to come," Ryan said.

The Cavaliers now have plenty of talent, beginning with their "Blitz Sister" back court of Donna Holt and Daphne Hawkins. The senior duo anchors a pressure defense that has limited opponents to 41 percent field goal shooting and produced an average of 27 turnovers per game. "Those two can take any team out of its offense," N.C. State Coach Kay Yow said after her team surrendered 16 steals in the first half and went more than 11 minutes without scoring in an 87-59 loss to Virginia two weeks ago.

Holt, an all-America last season as a junior, became the school's all-time steals leader in her sophomore season and is averaging 4.8 steals per game this season. Lately, she's picked up her offensive game as well, pushing those numbers to 12.4 points and 4.8 assists per contest. "I've really started looking for my shot more," Holt said after scoring 25 points against Maryland. "The coaches always wanted me to shoot more, and I finally gave in and figured I had to do more with the ball than get layups after steals. . . . I have to look for the outside shot when it's there and penetrate to help the whole team."

Mostly, though, Holt looks for Hawkins, a graduate of High Point High School who is Virginia's leading scorer at 18.5 per game, or sophomore Tonya Cardoza (10.9 points, 5.4 rebounds per game), who comes about as close as any female player does to a high-flying style. The 5-foot-10 Cardoza can dunk an undersized ball and claims she'll get a slam in a game before graduating.

"Tonya is as good an athlete as you'll find in women's basketball," Ryan said. "Just because she's at that small forward spot, we have the most athletic team we've ever had. We can come at a team inside with {6-2 senior center} Laurie Carter, Dawn Bryant or Tonya, and they each will give you trouble in a different way."

But the biggest change remains the outlook. Ryan said her personal breakthrough came at last summer's U.S. Olympic Festival in Chapel Hill, N.C., when she coached the West team to the gold medal. "That's what got me over the hump," she said. "After that, the fears were gone. All the talk about what our program hasn't accomplished -- it just doesn't bother me anymore. . . . I'm simply more mature, and now I feel like I'm on the right track with my coaching philosophy."

As for the players, well, they suspected they were good from the beginning. But now they're finding out for sure. Nine players, including three starters, returned from last year's ground-breaking team that competed in Virginia's first-ever ACC final (a 57-56 loss to N.C. State), and gained its first-ever NCAA tournament win (a 76-75 victory over Memphis State). Now, the goals are a few notches higher.

"We don't just want to have a good regular season and get to the tournament anymore," Bryant said. "We want to have a good tournament and just maybe win it all."