CHARLOTTESVILLE -- For years, Debbie Ryan would send friends and Virginia basketball recruits notes on stationery that had a scoreboard next to the letterhead, upon which she added a national championship marquee and a final score that always proclaimed an upset victory over the likes of Tennessee or Texas.
Trouble was, while the Cavaliers were mainstays in top 10 polls and consistently reached the final eight of the NCAA tournament, the prospect of contending for a national title always remained one tantalizing step out of reach.
But a Final Four appearance last year after an overtime victory over Tennessee -- which had eliminated Virginia from the NCAA tournament in four of the previous five years -- sent the Cavaliers into the preseason with their first realistic vision of a national title since Ryan took over the program in 1977. And with only six games remaining in the regular season, her stationery looks more prophetic than pipe dream.
"As far as being in this position, I don't know if I ever thought about it until last year," said Ryan, whose top-ranked, 21-1 team defeated North Carolina Wednesday. "I always felt like we could, but it was always like we were trying to talk somebody into doing it. These kids came in and said they were going to do it."
Gene Corrigan, then Virginia's athletic director, gave Ryan the job with some reservation. Not only was she 24, she is his niece. But Ryan insists the appearance of nepotism was not so much a problem as it was a challenge.
"He didn't make it easy," Ryan said. "He made me earn it, which he needed to do because I was too young to have the job, number one; and, number two, I was related so it looked bad for him if he gave me anything. But I needed to be brought down a notch. It was good for me."
After a first season in which Virginia went 8-17 and won just one conference game, she began her current stretch of 13 winning seasons. Regular season conference championships and an occasional all-American soon followed. Still, the ACC tournament title eluded her, and Virginia seemed forever peaked at the top-10 plateau.
The breakthrough came last season, when the Cavaliers -- sparked by the rapid development of 6-foot-4 freshman twins Heather and Heidi Burge -- won the ACC tournament before losing to eventual champion Stanford in the Final Four.
"We finally got some post players that could battle with the Tennessees," forward Tonya Cardoza said.
She still remembers the first "scoreboard" note Ryan sent her in 1985 during her senior year at Boston English High, and even then felt the idea of a championship wasn't farfetched.
Cardoza's misfortunes of last year -- she was sidelined with academic troubles -- may provide the Cavaliers with the final link to a national championship. Now a fifth-year senior, the 5-10 forward leads the team in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage, and teammates insist she improved during the layoff.
"From the first practice, she looked better than I did," said shooting guard Dawn Staley, a former national high school player of the year who leads the team in many other statistical categories. "And I played last year and all summer."
The greatest irony of the team may be that no player receives all-America status. Ryan regularly rotates 10 players, which coupled with blowouts in most games has made it impossible for anyone to average more than 16 points or 30 minutes.
"But this team won't care," Ryan said. "We'll get the credit we're due and, if we don't, it doesn't matter because we'll have fun getting there."
The only negative aspect has been a controversial 73-71 loss to then fourth-ranked Penn State here Jan. 3 when a Nittany Lion three-pointer was counted when most thought the final buzzer had sounded.
The play stood, but Virginia's fall from No. 1 would last only a week when Penn State lost to Rutgers eight days later.
Ryan had cautioned about putting too much stock in the top ranking, citing as evidence last fall's three-week reign at No. 1 by the Virginia football team, whose season rapidly crumbled after a 41-38 loss to Georgia Tech on Nov. 3.
"After the Penn State loss, people were comparing us to the football team, saying, 'They finally played someone and they lost,' " point guard Tammi Reiss said. "But she used that as motivation by asking us how we were going to respond: were we going to fold or were we going to get stronger?"
The Cavaliers looked formidable in their subsequent trip through the ACC, which included a 123-120, triple overtime victory at N.C. State during which Virginia trailed by 20 in the second half, then survived a 98-94 scare by Georgia Tech here Saturday after walloping the Yellow Jackets, 98-72, in Atlanta two weeks earlier.
The Cavaliers have averaged a staggering 91.5 points a game and have won by an average of 29. And in a game played below the rim, they have been downright exciting.
The Burge twins were listed in the "Guinness Book of World Records" this fall as the tallest female identical twins. Staley has emerged as the team's best passer -- so much so that some of her no-look passes bounce off unsuspecting teammates.
And Reiss -- who professes a goal of performing on the television show "American Gladiators" and who last season admitted to spending much of her spare time in local tanning salons -- remains the favorite target of opposing crowds, who are quick to remind her of the effects of too much ultraviolet radiation.
Ryan has cut down daily workouts to an hour, and the consensus among observers of the team's intrasquad games is that its second unit could win most games on the schedule. "My job as a coach this year has been more of knowing when to step out of the way," Ryan said.
Of Virginia's top eight players, only Cardoza will leave after this season, a void Artis likely will fill next year. But talk of the future stops at New Orleans, site of the NCAA championship.
"This is going to be the year we do it," Reiss said. "That's what we have our sights on. It will be a major disappointment if we don't achieve that goal."