As her Virginia teammates laughed and fired up half-court shots at the end of a relaxed Friday practice, sophomore guard Cherrise Graham was feeling good. She was feeling a bit funky, actually, so she pumped her arms and legs in a comic, running-in-place dance, then spun herself onto the floor in an attempt at break dancing. She drew the laughs she was seeking.
Much has changed since early January, when Graham was confused and unhappy, angry with herself for her inconsistent play and frustrated that her first season with the Cavaliers was not going as planned.
"I just didn't think I fit in here, anywhere," said Graham, who sat out the 2001-02 season after transferring from Purdue the previous summer. "It was just like hell. I wanted to go home; I didn't want to be here. It's a lot better than it was then."
Graham likely will be a key figure if eighth-seeded Virginia (16-13) is to advance in the NCAA tournament past Saturday's opener against ninth-seeded Illinois (17-11). She leads the Cavaliers with 15.2 points per game and is one of the most gifted players in the ACC.
Yet two months ago, Graham blamed herself for Virginia's 5-9 record, believing she was hampering the offense by committing nearly two turnovers for every assist as the starting point guard. After an all-America career as a high school point guard, she wondered if she was meant for the position.
On Jan. 5, Graham's frustration boiled over after Virginia lost to Wake Forest. She got into a postgame argument with teammate Brandi Teamer, earning her a 2 1/2-game suspension from Coach Debbie Ryan.
"It was really bad," Graham said. "On the court, I felt like my teammates were mad about the amount of turnovers I was making. I'm supposed to be a point guard, get people the ball. A little bit of conflict came there. Me and Brandi weren't getting along so well then. Everything was just not good."
Soon the Virginia coaches decided to shuffle the lineup, moving Graham to shooting guard and grooming sophomore wing LaTonya Blue to take over the point guard duties.
"We realized that [Graham] was much better if she was an off guard and just scoring for us," Ryan said. "She really wanted to play the point guard position, but it was best for the team that we move her over."
The switch worked almost perfectly. Graham could concentrate on scoring instead of worrying about running the offense and getting her teammates involved. Blue, whom the players discussed among themselves as a potential point guard last season, was better at setting up plays and avoiding turnovers.
The Cavaliers reeled off a stretch of 11 wins in 14 games that pushed them toward their 20th consecutive NCAA tournament berth and helped heal the interpersonal tensions that had frustrated Graham and other players.
"The problems that existed in the team were something that we had to work out ourselves," Teamer said. "Not a problem between just one or two people; it was a problem that multiple people were involved in."
Graham's scoring brilliance tends to come in flashes -- at the ACC tournament two weeks ago, she had eight points in one game, then 36 in another -- but that has been enough to catch the attention of Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt.
"There's no question [she's] terrific off the dribble, can create" open shots, said Summitt, whose top-seeded Lady Vols open Saturday's action against 16th-seeded Alabama State. She "just played some great basketball, put up big numbers. If [Virginia and Tennessee play in Monday's second round], I'll do my homework. We'll have to figure something out."