UVa. expects a lot, and Blue delivers

Ex-St. Frances star growing into new role, that of major scorer

College Basketball

January 16, 2002|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - Once in a while, frustration broke through the usually impassive expression on LaTonya Blue's game face.

On the court at Virginia's University Hall during a rough stretch against Clemson, the Cavaliers freshman leaned over and clutched the hems of her shorts. Clemson senior Chrissy Floyd had been streaking by her, the fouls were mounting and her shot would not fall.

Things weren't exactly what Blue, last season's Sun Player of the Year at St. Frances, expected of her initial leap into Atlantic Coast Conference women's basketball.

Actually, things were better.

OK, so the Clemson game wasn't going as well as Blue would have liked. She scored six points while Floyd had 28 and the Tigers won, 79-68. But Blue also had eight rebounds and five assists. Besides, she had never wanted to play anywhere other than at Virginia.

The frustration surfaces only because the Cavaliers' coaching staff expects so much of the smooth 5-foot-9 forward, who averages 30 minutes and cracked the starting lineup after two games.

Even after breaking her right middle finger in a freak defensive collision during Sunday's 65-51 win over Wake Forest, Blue can't complain too much - although the injury makes her questionable for tomorrow night's 7:30 game between the Cavaliers (8-8, 2-3) and Maryland (9-7, 2-3) at Cole Field House.

The reward/frustration ratio heavily favors the reward side.

"At first, when they told me, `You have to be our scorer, you have to be our defensive stopper, you have to be a rebounder,' I was like, `Whoa,' " said Blue, one of five Virginia freshmen.

"It felt like a lot of pressure was being put on me, but once I started playing and they told me I'm playing like they want me to, then it kind of slacked off a little bit. It means a lot that they tell me every day that they're looking for me to do all these things."

In her first game, on the road Nov. 16 at Hampton, Blue hit two free throws with 10 seconds left to seal a 51-48 Virginia victory. Two weeks later at University Hall, she drove for a layup with 10.3 seconds left to beat UC-Santa Barbara, 72-71.

In her second ACC game, she scored 26 points in a 68-52 win at N.C. State. Blue, who averages 9.3 points, had not scored that many points in a game - ever. The performance earned her ACC Rookie of the Week honors.

Although her scoring has cooled in the past three games, Blue ranks fourth in the ACC this week in assist-turnover ratio (67-39), sixth in assists (4.19) and 12th in rebounding (5.8).

"LaTonya leads our team in assists," said Virginia coach Debbie Ryan, "so I never really worry about LaTonya and her game. I know that she'll find a way to get the ball in the basket somehow and she'll just play great defense, steal the ball and kick it up ahead. That's her job. As she gets a little bit older, she'll realize she can score more."

Blue, 18, didn't play a big scoring role at St. Frances, where she led the Panthers to the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championship and The Sun's No. 1 ranking a year ago.

After averaging 12.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.2 assists at St. Frances, Blue arrived in Charlottesville last summer as a prized, if not much heralded, recruit.

"She was the 80th player in the country last year in terms of rankings," said Ryan, "but that's a lot of baloney if you watch her play."

Blue's athleticism, natural strength, style of play and game knowledge impressed Ryan, but what really stood out was her defensive prowess.

"She is far and above the best defender I've ever coached as a freshman," said Ryan, in her 25th season as Cavaliers head coach. "[She has] far and above the most ability to just stop someone in transition, the best ability to handle somebody on the perimeter. She just has great instincts, and she had great skills coming in."

Her game is a work in progress - still reflecting the point guard instincts of her past while making the transition to small forward.

As a point guard, Blue did more to get her St. Frances teammates into the game than to boost her own numbers. She thrived on playing the primary defensive role and preferred the supporting offensive role, but she could take over a game seemingly at will.

In the IAAM A Conference championship a year ago, Blue simply carried the Panthers to the title. Her statistics in the final didn't appear overly impressive - 13 points and five assists - but she inspired her teammates, made the clutch shots and shut out her defensive mark.

"That's the thing about Blue. She not only contributes to her team in scoring, but in every other column," said Audra Smith, Virginia assistant coach and recruiting coordinator.

Blue, who earned mostly B's in her first semester, became more than just a blip on the coaching staff's radar screen the minute Smith spotted her in an AAU tournament as a 13-year old.

"You could tell at a young age she had something special," said Smith. "There was something about her. She had some fire."

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