By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Duke women’s basketball team, which was picked to win the ACC, has six players taller than 6-2 on its roster. Notre Dame, picked to finish second, has four. So does Maryland, which was picked to finish third in the 15-team league.
UVa, picked to finish eighth, has none. Juniors Sarah Imovbioh and Sarah Beth Barnette are listed at 6-2, and freshmen Sydney Umeri and Amanda Fioravanti are 6-1. Everyone else on the Cavaliers’ roster is under 6-0.
“It is what it is,” said Joanne Boyle, who’s heading into her third season as Virginia’s coach.
“You have to control the controllables, and yes, I would like to have more size, but we don’t. We spent a lot of time in the offseason working on different things. The one great thing about it is we have a lot more depth this year. We have a lot more guards. We’re more versatile with Lexie [Gerson] back in the mix, being able to play multiple positions for us. So our job as coaches is to put the kids in position to be successful, and I think we can do that with the versatility we have this year.”
UVa opens the season Friday at 7 p.m. against JMU in Harrisonburg. A season ago, in her college debut, Imovbioh totaled 21 points and 10 rebounds to help the Wahoos pound the Dukes 78-57 at John Paul Jones Arena.
Imovbioh, who had to sit out the 2011-12 season, finished 2012-13 as UVa’s second-leading rebounder (6.8 per game). Nos. 1 and 3, respectively, were 6-1 Telia McCall (7.7) and 6-3 Simone Egwu (5.4), and they were seniors. Which means everyone on the floor for the `Hoos, including the guards, will have to make rebounding a priority this season.
“Absolutely,” said All-ACC guard Ataira Franklin, a senior who averaged 4.3 rebounds in 2012-13. “We can’t rely so heavily on Sarah to get all the boards.”
Boyle said the coaching staff has emphasized team rebounding, “and I feel like we’re better this year in practice than we were last year in games at this time of the year, with understanding the importance of that. And I feel like they’ve really worked hard. [The players] see that we don’t have the size out there.”
Virginia has an abundance of guards, from seniors Franklin, Lexie Gerson and Kelsey Wolfe, to sophomores Jaryn Garner and Faith Randolph, to freshmen Raeshaun Gaffney, Breyana Mason and Tiffany Suarez.
The 5-8 Gaffney was on the team last season but had to redshirt because of an injury. She can play both guard positions.
“Rae is a freak-of-nature athlete,” Franklin said. “She’s the fastest player on the team, highest vertical on the team, long, athletic, great on-ball defender. She’s not necessarily a natural point guard, but I think that she is really honing in to that being her role. She’s really trying to focus and be more vocal and just contribute in any way that she can. Just being out all last season gave her a different perspective, and she’s hungry as well and she’s just really eager to get out on the court.”
UVa’s other options at the point, Boyle said, are Garner, Mason and Wolfe, who’s back after tearing her ACL late last season. They’ll direct a perimeter-oriented offense like the one Boyle successfully employed during her tenure as coach at the University of Richmond.
“We didn’t have a lot of size at Richmond,” Boyle said. “So we had one big post player, and similar to here, we just had a lot more guards on our team at that point.”
Barnette, who began her college career at the University of Kentucky, is most comfortable on the wing. Imovbioh and Fioravanti like to operate around the basket. Umeri is the team’s most versatile post player.
“She can shoot the 3, she can shoot the 15-footer,” Boyle said. “I wouldn’t mind to see Syd eventually, maybe as a junior, become a big 3 for us. She has the potential to do that. This year obviously we have a lot of guards, so I don’t know that that would be her role. She gives us a lot of versatility.”
Fioravanti graduated from Our Lady of Good Counsel High, a Maryland school that’s well-represented in UVa’s football program.
“She’s a banger,” Boyle said. “She loves to bang more than any of them, to be honest, and she’s got really good footwork on the block. But she likes to play physical. And she can shoot the 15-footer. She’s not a stretch-4. She’s more of a traditional 4.”
And then there’s Imovbioh, who starred at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, a short drive from JPJ. Her offensive game remains a work in progress — Imovbioh averaged 8.5 points in 2012-13 — but her relentlessness on the boards makes her a force around the basket.
“She’s still raw,” Boyle said. “She’s still trying to figure herself out on the floor, but her rebounding is just off the charts. She almost rebounds like she’s two people. The physicality, she needs to clean that up, but I like the fact that she will play physical for us. She’s demanding the ball a lot more this year … She’s understanding the offense pretty well. It’s predicated on guard play, but she’s an instrument in that as well, and so I feel like she’s doing a good job there, and she’s obviously better in our defenses this year.”
In the Cavaliers’ first season under Boyle, they went 25-11 and advanced to the NIT quarterfinals, where they lost to JMU. With a full complement of players, Virginia almost certainly would have posted another 20-win season in 2012-13. But injuries to Gerson, Gaffney, Wolfe and Garner derailed the `Hoos, who finished 16-14.
Gerson, a fifth-year senior, is the only player in the program who was been on a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament. That was in 2009-10, when Gerson was a freshman.
This season, a trip to the NCAAs is “the goal for everybody,” Boyle said.
The underclassmen want to send out the Cavaliers’ seniors — Franklin, Wolfe and Gerson — in memorable fashion. “At the same time,” Boyle said, “the upperclassmen are trying to tell the freshmen, `This is how it’s supposed to be here. Every year you’re expected to go to the tournament.’
“So I think both of them want the same thing and they’re on the same page, and I feel like they’re a unit moving forward, and they’re not afraid to talk about it. That’s their goal, and they can speak about it, because I feel like they believe that they should be there this year.”