In the early ’90s, Debbie Ryan’s basketball teams were among the most dominant in the country. Led by All-American players like Dawn Staley, Tammi Reiss and Tonya Cardoza, the Cavaliers made three consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four from 1990 through 1992. During those three seasons, Virginia compiled an overall record of 92-11, including a 40-4 mark in the ACC. Virginia’s first trip to the Final Four ended with a 75-66 loss to eventual champion Stanford. The next two years would feature epic games and agonizingly close losses for the Cavaliers.
In 1991—Ryan’s second Final Four—Virginia advanced to the national championship game for the first time in program history after winning the semifinal game 61-55 against Connecticut, coached by former UVA assistant coach Geno Auriemma. In the championship game against Tennessee, the Cavaliers lost in overtime, 70-67. Staley, who would become a two-time collegiate national Player of the Year and three-time Olympic basketball gold medalist, scored 28 points in the game and remains the only player from a losing team to be honored as the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
The Cavaliers’ third straight Final Four in 1992 featured a semifinal rematch with an old nemesis, Stanford, the team that had knocked them out of the tournament two years earlier. Virginia led 51-44 with less than eight minutes left, but Stanford rallied to win by a point, 66-65.
“We had the shots,” Ryan said after the game. “They just didn’t go in.”
Though she was referring to her team’s subpar 34.8 shooting percentage against Stanford, Ryan’s postgame lament summed up just how close her team had come to winning it all in each of the previous three NCAA Tournaments.