By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Not until about 9 p.m. Friday will the UVa women’s basketball team learn who it will face, and where, and when the game will be played in the WNIT quarterfinals.
The wait won’t bother the Cavaliers. No matter what the bracket brings, this team is eager for the next challenge.
“We’ve been given the opportunity to play in the postseason,” sophomore guard Ataira Franklin said Thursday night, “which isn’t something that a lot of teams have right now, so we just want to take advantage of it.”
Since struggling to get past Howard in the WNIT’s first round, the Wahoos have dominated. In their second-round game, the ‘Hoos dispatched Richmond 68-55. Three nights later, playing its third straight game at John Paul Jones Arena, UVa eliminated Appalachian State 74-58.
With the victory, the Cavaliers improved to 25-10 — their most wins in a season since 1999-2000.
“I just feel good that the team has completely bought in and we’re maximizing our potential and we’re still playing deep into March,” first-year coach Joanne Boyle said Thursday night.
“That’s how you kind of evaluate a team — did they reach their potential? — and I think we’ve reached it, and we’re playing some really good basketball right now. So we’re peaking at the right time … The longer we play, the better.”
Next up for Virginia is a quarterfinal date with JMU or South Florida. Those teams will meet in a third-round game Friday night in Harrisonburg.
The UVa-Appalachian State game drew 1,422 to JPJ. If the Dukes win in front of a larger crowd Friday night, they could host the Cavaliers in the quarterfinals. That’s why point guard Ariana Moorer, one of two seniors on the UVa roster, said she and her teammates will pass on the opportunity to scout the Dukes and the Bulls in person.
“We’re not going to contribute to their attendance,” Moorer said with a smile.
Boyle’s debut as Virginia’s coach came against Appalachian State, and the game could not have gone much better for her. On Nov. 11, the Cavaliers crushed the Mountaineers 80-48 at JPJ. The rematch wasn’t as one-sided, but UVa went ahead to stay on two free throws by Moorer with 8:48 left in the first half.
As she has been throughout the WNIT, Moorer was magnificent Thursday night. She finished with 16 points, 11 assists, 6 rebounds, 4 steals, 1 blocked shot and only 1 turnover. Her previous career high in assists was 8.
“When she has floor games like she’s been having the last three games, we’re just better,” Boyle said. “It’s kind of like her pace makes our pace as a team better. We just get easier looks at the basket, easier shot attempts, and it just makes everybody a little bit more relaxed.”
Franklin sparkled, too, scoring a game-high 22 points. After Moorer turned a steal into a layup to make it 37-27 early in the second half, Franklin scored UVa’s next 15 points.
“The shots that I’m getting aren’t necessarily in the halfcourt set,” Franklin said. “They’re in transition. Any transition we can get, anything we create from our defense, is good for us, because that’s how we want to play.”
Moorer’s passes set up many of Franklin’s baskets. Moorer’s eighth assist came on a pass that traveled about 70 feet before Franklin caught it and scored on a fast-break layup.
“I don’t think any of us are ready to stop playing,” Franklin said. “Whatever the case may be, like Coach says, as a team we go where Ari goes. She’s the floor general. When she’s playing well, when she’s playing at a great pace, then we all tend to follow. Whatever [the cause] is, I hope she doesn’t stop.”
Virginia’s other senior, forward Chelsea Shine, contributed 6 points, 5 assists and 2 steals. Starting center Simone Egwu scored 8 points, and junior guard Lexie Gerson had nearly as many steals (6) as points (8).
“That’s what she does,” Boyle said of Gerson, a member of the ACC’s All-Defensive team.
Another standout was reserve forward Telia McCall, a 6-1 forward. Against Richmond, McCall had 9 points and 10 rebounds in 31 minutes. She played 31 minutes against the Mountaineers (27-7), too, and tied her career high with 14 points. McCall was 5 for 7 from the floor and 4 for 4 from the line, and she grabbed 5 rebounds.
“I’m getting her in the game earlier and earlier,” Boyle said, “just to see kind of where she’s going to be. But kind of like Ari, she’s played really well here the last couple of games and has really given us a spark, in particular, I think, with her rebounding, just [creating] second-chance opportunities.”
UVa forced Appalachian State into 28 turnovers. Led by Gerson, seven Cavaliers had at least one steal.
“This is what we do,” Moorer said. “We fly around. Ataira and Lexie get tips and deflections, and I come up with the steals. It’s definitely fun playing like this.”
The Cavaliers will have at least one more chance to play that way this season. Whatever disappointment they felt over being bypassed for the NCAA tournament has given way to excitement about their WNIT run.
“I think right now we’re really, really, really playing for Chelsea and Ari,” Franklin said. “We don’t want this to end for them just yet, and we’d like to send them out with a championship.”