CHARLOTTESVILLE, JAN. 13 -- Stomachs were still churning here today as Virginia's two basketball teams reflected on the startling fashion in which one emerged a winner Saturday, the other a loser.
The 13th-ranked men's squad (10-3, 2-1 ACC) had harbored hopes of defeating No. 5 North Carolina for a third straight game for the first time in 47 years, only to see its workmanlike effort negated by King Rice's jump shot with three seconds remaining in double overtime, 89-86.
Earlier in the day, Tonya Cardoza's layup with two seconds left in a third extra session gave the second-ranked Cavaliers a 123-120 victory over No. 3 North Carolina State before an ACC women's record crowd of 11,520 in Raleigh, N.C.
Players from both Virginia programs were quick to pronounce the games as among the finest they had played, an unlikely label for such nerve-wracking, early season confrontations. But the victory by the Virginia women (14-1), who were No. 1 until a 73-71 loss to Penn State here 10 days ago, should return them to the top spot after the Nittany Lions, who had taken over the top ranking, were upset Saturday by No. 10 Rutgers.
"Penn State lost but I'm not worried about that right now," Virginia Coach Debbie Ryan said. "It's January. . . . That's never been an important thing to me. Wherever we are is fine with me."
The Virginia women, who lost to Stanford in the Final Four last season and quietly set a preseason goal of a national championship, have outscored opponents by an average of 32 points. Cardoza, a fifth-year senior who sat out last season, has returned to average 15.7 points in 27 minutes a game as part of Ryan's nine-player rotation. Junior guard Dawn Staley recorded the program's first triple-double with 24 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists Saturday.
"The fact that we bring so many people off the bench, can substitute and keep our post people fresh makes the difference down the stretch," Ryan said.
Jeff Jones, who succeeded Terry Holland as the men's coach in April, has effectively offset his team's lack of depth and size by combining Holland's trademark chest-to-chest defensive pressure with a more up-tempo offense. An experienced seven-man rotation, which includes no player over 6 feet 9 inches and often features 6-7 Matt Blundin at center, has held up.
North Carolina snapped Virginia's eight-game winning streak -- during which the Cavaliers shot 51 percent -- largely by holding them to 40 percent. Jones stressed before the game that the Cavaliers would need to maintain their hot shooting, get more scoring from the reserves and dominate the rebounding. Despite the absence of all three elements, Virginia led for much of the second half, matching each Tar Heels surge. Leading scorer Bryant Stith (21.6 points per game) made three of nine field goals in the first half but finished with 22 points.
"We learned that even when we aren't playing well, that the defense and rebounding can pull us together," said Jones, whose team visits Maryland Wednesday. "A lot of teams at home struggle when they start to feel the pressure. They start falling apart rather than pulling together. Ours chose to pull together and I think that shows their character."
Point guard John Crotty, who had a game-high 29 points and broke Jones's Virginia career assist record late in the second half, has improved upon his 39 percent shooting of last season, hitting a more respectable 43 percent -- 38 from three-point range.
Players insist Saturday's result was not indicative of their merits, citing as evidence the Tar Heels' gleeful postgame celebration at midcourt.
"Beating Virginia is a big thing now because we're good," foward Kenny Turner said. "That's why you saw them celebrating like that. We're not the tallest team and we're not the quickest team, but we get the job done."
Virginia earned its last two NCAA tournament berths only after late-season surges, winning six of its last eight in 1989 and reaching the finals of the ACC tournament last season. But the players stress that such 11th-hour heroics won't be required this season, with the strong start and six remaining nonconference games.
"We're playing well now and I don't think it's a bold statement to say we can play with anybody in the country," said Blundin, the backup quarterback on the 1990 Virginia football team, ever wary of that team's late-season misfortunes. "We took the number five team in the country to two overtimes and almost beat them."
"It's a tough way to lose, but I feel very good about this team," said Turner, from Indianapolis, site of this year's Final Four. "I'd like to be able to go back home. It might sound confident after a loss, but I think this team can do it."