By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — They gathered Monday night in their locker room at John Paul Jones Arena and turned on ESPN, ready to celebrate the addition of an exclamation point to Joanne Boyle’s first season as women’s basketball coach at UVa.
Many bracketologists had projected Virginia as a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament, but the selection show brought crushing news for Boyle’s team. Never mind the Cavaliers’ early-season upset of Tennessee, which was awarded a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs. The selection committee snubbed UVa (22-10) in favor of such teams as Kansas, Michigan and Texas.
The Jayhawks (19-12) have lost 10 of their past 14 games.
“When Kansas went up,” Boyle said Tuesday, “I was like, ‘We’re done.’ “
“We watched and we watched and we watched,” Virginia forward Chelsea Shine said, “and our jaws dropped a little further each time they announced parts of the bracket. We were shocked and bummed.”
The Wahoos’ disappointment may linger for a while, but their season is not over. Late Monday night, UVa accepted an invitation to play in the 64-team Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
After the NCAA field was announced, Shine said, the Cavaliers “didn’t really know what to do or what to say, but the attention quickly got turned to the NIT, and that’s the next thing on the docket. We didn’t have a lot of time to sulk or be upset, and we realized quickly that we had no control over it, and what we do have control over now is Thursday night.”
At 7 o’clock, Virginia (22-10) will host Howard (24-8) at JPJ. The winner will meet Richmond or Miami (Ohio) in the second round.
Had they received an invitation to the NCAAs, the ‘Hoos would have been off Tuesday. Instead, they convened at JPJ for a practice that afternoon.
Boyle said her challenge is to “get them ready and get them excited. I told them, ‘You guys can’t see it now, but if you can wrap your head around winning six games [in the WNIT], which we’re totally capable of, after you cut down those nets, it’s actually a very good feeling. It feels good. You look back and you go, ‘It was worth it.’ And that’s what I’ve got to try to convince them, to approach it like that.”
This is Boyle’s 10th season as a head coach. In her first nine, her teams made five trips to the NCAA tournament and four appearances in the WNIT. Cal won the WNIT in 2009-10.
For a team that has only two seniors — Shine and point guard Ariana Moorer — a deep run in the WNIT could pay dividends for the ‘Hoos next season and beyond.
“That’s something that the coaches reminded us about as well,” Shine said. “They said they were upset and kind of apologized to the seniors, because we didn’t get to be a part of [the NCAAs this season]. But at the same time they said, two, three, four years down the line, when this team is really successful in the NCAA tournament, we’ll get to look back and say we were part of this.
“Baby steps, Coach Boyle said. It’s going to take baby steps to continue to build this program to where it’s going to hopefully be some day. Whether it’s winning the NIT or just being a part of the NIT or whatever it is, Ari and I are really glad and excited to be a part of that.”
Boyle said she wants her players to focus on how the WNIT “ultimately benefits our team and our program. The seniors can go out on a good note, and the younger kids can help the seniors do that, and this can be a stepping stone.
“They still continue to play. They’re not sitting at home. There are a lot of positives.”
In 2010-11, its final season under Debbie Ryan, Virginia finished 19-16 after losing in the WNIT quarterfinals. That same group of players — minus Paulisha Kellum and Jayna Hartig, who exhausted their college eligibility, and Whitny Edwards, who transferred to East Carolina (along with her twin Britny, a redshirt last season) — has posted a significantly better record.
That Boyle’s squad has had such success without contributions from any newcomers — freshman Sarah Imovbioh is ineligible to play this season — makes her accomplishment more impressive. But the NCAA selection committee was not swayed.
Committee chairman Greg Christopher said during the ESPN telecast Monday night that Florida, Kansas, Michigan and Texas were the last four at-large teams invited. The first four out, Christopher said, were Oklahoma State, Southern California, Temple and UVa.
“Those conversations were really difficult,” Christopher said. “Ultimately, I’ll bet we spent four hours, close to four hours, talking about those eight teams by themselves.”
Four ACC teams made the NCAA field: Maryland, Duke, Miami and Georgia Tech. UVa did not beat any of them. Virginia went 0-2 against North Carolina.
The Cavaliers “had the great win against Tennessee that stood out,” Christopher said, “but in the conference, they certainly had wins against teams that were below them in the standings, but they didn’t have any of those significant wins against teams that were above them in the standings.”
UVa lost in double overtime to UNC on Jan. 5 at JPJ. Would a victory that night have changed the Cavaliers’ postseason fate?
“Maybe,” Boyle said, “but the committee says it looks at a body of work, a résumé. Our body of work was good, our résumé was good. We didn’t have any bad losses. We were 9-7 [in the ACC]. We beat a 2 seed. We finished strong down the stretch. We had 22 wins. We have a good body of work.”
Shine said she found herself replaying the regular season Monday night, “thinking back to every game and saying, ‘Which one would have done it?’
“You almost can’t do that to yourself. At this point, that decision’s made, and there’s nothing we can do about it now. We’ve learned a lot from every experience, the wins and the losses, the close games and the blowouts. We are hopefully going to be able to take all that into the postseason with us.”