Mt. Airy's Wagener is calm in Virginia storm

March 09, 1992|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Staff Writer

ROCK HILL, S.C. -- At guard, the top-ranked Virginia women's basketball team has seniors Dawn Staley and Tammi Reiss -- gifted and complementary, but personality opposites, with Staley the introvert and Reiss the extrovert.

Then, there are the identical twin centers, Heather and Heidi Burge, who are as apt to battle with each other as with opposing post players. On a recent national television game, Heather was seen telling Heidi to shut up, stop whining over foul calls and play the game.

And, in the midst of this mix, is the calm and composure of Melanee Wagener, a 6-foot-2 senior frontcourt player from Mount Airy.

On a team loaded with flash and --, glamour and glitz, Wagener provides the down-to-earth component for the Cavaliers, who meet Georgia Tech in tonight's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship game.

"I'm very happy to be a part of this," Wagener said. "This is a good group of people to be around."

Wagener, Virginia's sixth-leading scorer (5.5), fifth-leading rebounder (5.1) and third-best shooter (50 percent), was a star at South Carroll, where she scored more than 1,500 points and pulled down more than 1,000 rebounds, holding 13 of 25 school records.

However, with the Cavaliers, on a push to reach their third consecutive Final Four, Wagener is clearly a role player. But she has no qualms about accepting that status.

"My basic role is to be at the high post, look to get the ball into Heather or Heidi, to be a reversal and to play solid defensively and to be more of an emotional lift," Wagener said.

She has had to accept a change in that role. Last season, when the Cavaliers lost in the national championship game to Tennessee, 70-67, in overtime, Wagener was a starter in 31 of 34 games.

But before this season began, Virginia coach Debbie Ryan told Wagener that, for the sake of the offense, she wanted to insert junior guard Dena Evans as the fifth starter with Staley, Reiss and the Burges.

Wagener took the demotion in stride.

"Debbie and I spoke about it," Wagener said. "She told me the reasons for it, and it wasn't really that hard to accept. My minutes have stayed the same, and it's also a lot easier to accept with the caliber of players we have.

"Last year, I was accustomed to warming up, then going right in to play. It does take a bit longer to get warmed after sitting down, but I can adjust."

The manner in which Wagener adjusted was critical to the team's chemistry, and that, too, has been a success.

"Our guard situation dictated that we make the change. I didn't have to sell her on it at all," Ryan said. "As long as you're honest with them, they accept what you say. She's been really receptive."

"If it would have affected her, it would have affected us," Reiss said. "But she's very unselfish. She put herself after the team. She could have sulked and gotten down, but you saw no sign of that. She's got a lot of class."

For the Cavaliers, who have a 15-game winning streak, and Wagener the challenge is to win the national championship. The Cavaliers had their one stumble in January, when they fell to Maryland in a dramatic 67-65 game.

"The loss to Maryland was good for us. Maryland's a very good team. They came in and played well," Wagener said. "We needed that, not to give us a reality check, but to make us better."

Virginia will be the favorite to get to the Final Four in Los Angeles next month, especially because the East Regional will be played at University Hall in Charlottesville.

The Cavaliers say that, after last season's undefeated ACC season and their postseason disappointment, they de-emphasized the importance of the regular season to make a strong postseason push.

"We learned from last year that we can be beaten on any given night," Wagener said. "We have to go in with that same attitude. We definitely want it all."

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