By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the UVa women’s basketball team, the WNIT is more than an opportunity to send seniors Ariana Moorer and Chelsea Shine out with a championship. It’s an opportunity for the team’s other players to gain experience that will benefit them — and the Cavaliers — in 2012-13 and beyond.
“That is the plan,” junior guard Lexie Gerson said. “We’re trying to build a [foundation] here for our legacy to come.”
Of the eight players first-year coach Joanne Boyle used Monday night in Virginia’s second-round game against Richmond, six will have eligibility remaining when the season ends. That group includes Gerson and sophomore guard Ataira Franklin, starters who combined for 29 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals in UVa’s 68-55 win over UR at John Paul Jones Arena.
Gerson and Franklin already play “about as many minutes as they want,” Boyle said. “We’re not really worried about [getting more experience for] them.”
For reserves such as sophomore guard Kelsey Wolfe and junior forward Telia McCall, however, the WNIT playing time is precious. Wolfe scored 6 points in 16 minutes against the Spiders (23-9). McCall had a season-high 10 rebounds and added 9 points and 2 steals in her 31 minutes.
“I thought she had a great game tonight,” Boyle said.
The Wahoos (24-10) generally sparkled, too, against a team they had defeated 69-56 in early December at the Robins Center.
“Just a good win,” said Boyle, a former UR head coach. “I think from start to finish we played our type of basketball, and I thought we were pretty good on both ends of the floor.”
The ‘Hoos returned home from the ACC tournament early this month hoping to play in the NCAA tourney, and that seemed to be a realistic goal. Most bracketologists had Virginia in the NCAA field. But the NCAA selection committee spurned the Cavaliers, and so they headed to the WNIT for the second straight season.
“It hurt for a little while,” Moorer said, “but I knew that we were going to be in the WNIT and we still have a chance to win a championship.”
The Cavaliers needed overtime to slip past Howard in the WNIT’s first round Thursday night. They were more impressive against the Spiders.
“I think we lost to a really good basketball team,” UR coach Michael Shafer said. “I’m not trying to trumpet it, but there’s no question that we lost to an NCAA basketball team in Virginia.”
Next up for UVa is a third-round date with Appalachian State (27-6), which upset NC State in Raleigh on Saturday. The teams will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday at JPJ.
“It’s a privilege,” Gerson said. “Any time we get another opportunity to play, it’s a privilege. I just love to play basketball, so I’m just real excited to continue our journey.”
Virginia opened the season with an 80-48 rout of Appalachian State at JPJ, but Boyle’s memories of that game have faded.
“There’s been too many games between now and then,” she said with a smile.
Moorer, the team’s tireless point guard, helped ensure that Boyle’s 34th game as UVa’s coach would end well. In 40 minutes, Moorer totaled 16 points, 8 assists, 5 steals and 3 rebounds. Twelve of her points came after intermission.
“I wasn’t aggressive in the first half,” Moorer said. “I was kind of passive. I went into [what the Cavaliers call] ‘point-guard mode,’ looking for the open player, not really looking to score. But the coaches kept telling me I needed to be aggressive, I needed to get to the rim, and that’s what I did.”
The 5-11 Gerson, who last month was named to the ACC’s All-Defensive team, rarely has to be reminded to be aggressive. She’s been a high-energy player since she arrived at UVa in 2009-10. But not until the new coaching staff took over last spring — Boyle and assistants Cory McNeill, Kim McNeill and Katie O’Connor — did Gerson begin to thrive at Virginia.
She averaged 5.0 points as a freshman and 5.5 as a sophomore. In her first season under Boyle, she’s averaging 9.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 32.7 minutes. Gerson, who has started the past 22 games, leads the team in steals (104) and is second in assists (88). She’s also made 33 treys, second-most on the team.
Sometimes a player just needs “a fresh start,” Boyle said.
The 2010-11 season “was a tough year for all of us,” Gerson said. “I was just excited for a new year, a new beginning. The coaches have been absolutely amazing. We’ve all bought into their system. Their defense — Coach Cory’s defense — has really played into what I do best, so it’s just been a great journey so far this year. I’m really having a lot of fun.”
Gerson’s success on defense “just builds her confidence on the offensive end,” Boyle said. “We’ve trying to put all the girls in a position to be successful. And hopefully the offense does that and the defense gets ’em going. But she’s very active, and she’s a ball player, and she’s just playing with confidence.”
Would Gerson prefer to be playing in the NCAAs? No doubt. But she’s embraced the WNIT experience.
“This is so much fun,” she said. “I love playing basketball, and every opportunity we get to play on our home court is just amazing.”