By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The ACC women’s basketball tournament begins March 5 in Greensboro, N.C. If UVa and Virginia Tech don’t meet in Greensboro — and perhaps even if they do — Ataira Franklin, Lexie Gerson and Kelsey Wolfe will end their college careers unbeaten against their school’s biggest rival.
Virginia guards Franklin, Gerson and Wolfe are head coach Joanne Boyle’s seniors, and they’ve helped extend the program’s remarkable run of success against the Hokies.
Since a 60-58 loss to Virginia Tech at John Paul Jones Arena on Jan. 22, 2007, the Cavaliers have won 16 consecutive games in the series. Their latest victory came Sunday afternoon in the annual Play4Kay game at JPJ.
Before a season-high crowd of 5,423, the Wahoos, resplendent in their pink uniforms, whipped the Hokies 80-64 to sweep the teams’ regular-season series. Virginia erased a 17-point deficit and defeated Tech 67-60 at Cassell Coliseum on Jan. 9.
“It feels great,” Franklin said Sunday after running her record against the Hokies to 8-0. “This is obviously an in-state rivalry, a game that you really get up and you’re excited to play. You know, the crowds are just amazing, and they love when we play Virginia Tech. Everyone’s really bought into this rivalry, so to be able to go against them and not having lost, it feels great, and once again it’s just something we take pride in.”
That the victory came in a game honoring the memory of former NC State coach Kay Yow made it more special for the `Hoos. The Play4Kay initiative is aimed at raising awareness about breast cancer.
“Kay was a pioneer,” Boyle said. “She laid the foundation and the groundwork for all of us in this sport.”
Franklin said: “Everyone loves wearing pink uniforms and stuff, but obviously the cause that’s behind it just means so much more. I know that a lot of us know people who’ve been affected with cancer and those kind of things. So once again it just makes you want to play harder.”
In what might have been her final game against Virginia Tech, Franklin scored 14 points and added three assists and a game-high three steals. Three other Cavaliers also scored in double figures: junior center Sarah Imovbioh (19 points), Wolfe (12) and sophomore guard Faith Randolph (11).
“I think we were pushing the ball a lot better,” Franklin said. “We were getting the ball out quick, and we were able to get some easy transition baskets.”
The `Hoos also ran their halfcourt offense efficiently. Tech’s interior defense was non-existent at times, and the 6-2 Imovbioh capitalized by hitting 9 of 13 shots from the floor.
“I just felt like I had to be aggressive down low and go up strong and attack the basket,” Imovbioh said.
Three of the Cavaliers’ first four possessions in the second half ended with uncontested layups by Imovbioh. Gerson assisted on the first of those baskets, freshman point guard Breyana Mason on the second, and Wolfe on the third.
“We moved the ball well,” said Boyle, whose team totaled 17 assists.
Just as important, the `Hoos applied themselves on defense, too. That wasn’t the case two nights earlier in Atlanta, where Georgia Tech humbled UVa 95-76.
“I just told [the players] I wanted some accountability today coming off of how we played last week,” Boyle said. “And so we came out straight man-to-man … and I felt like we did a really good job with pressure.”
The Hokies (11-14, 1-11), who are in their third season under former UVa men’s assistant Dennis Wolff, turned the ball over seven times in the first 4:08. They finished with more turnovers (15) than assists (13).
UVa led by 11 at the break and by 17 with 16:20 to play. But Tech rallied behind senior post player Uju Ugoka (21 points) — whom Imovbioh knows from their childhoods in Nigeria — and freshman guard Vanessa Panousis (19 points). Ugoka’s layup with 8:04 remaining made it a five-point game, and the home fans grew anxious.
To Boyle’s delight, her players responded by re-asserting themselves on defense. The `Hoos also heated up on offense, and by the 3:50 mark their lead was back to 17.
After the game, Boyle singled out that stretch to her players. “I said, `That’s who we have to be. There’s going to be days when our offense isn’t falling, so we have to get in the habit of being a better defensive team and a better rebounding team, because that’s what’s going to carry us throughout the game when our offense isn’t falling.’ ”
Among the former UVa players in town over the weekend was Monica Wright, the program’s all-time leading scorer (2,540 points). Wright, now a standout guard for the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx, addressed the Cavaliers before the game Sunday.
“Her biggest thing for us was just to play free and have fun,” Franklin said. “I think that we definitely bought into that and went out there. Obviously we love playing at home, and it was just fun to be able to play in front of the alumni. It was just a great feeling and great to have her here supporting us.”
Wright graduated from Forest Park High in Woodbridge. So did Mason, who broke Wright’s school record for career points.
Mason made the eighth start of her college career Sunday. She’s had an uneven first season — Mason is shooting 29.5 percent from the floor — but she was 4 for 6 against Virginia Tech and scored nine points, all in the first half. She also contributed three assists and a steal in her 25 minutes.
“It’s coming,” Boyle said. “It’s a little bit at a time. We’re not seeing 40 minutes quite yet. But I think, too, for Bre, it’s that freshman conditioning, being able to play through [fatigue] and still staying aggressive, and obviously she was fresh in the first half, and she was aggressive. We gotta get her thinking full games like that.”
Four regular-season games remain for UVa, and the first two are against nationally ranked teams. Virginia hosts North Carolina on Thursday and plays next Sunday afternoon at NC State.
In the USA Today coaches poll, UNC is No. 10 and State is No. 13.
For the Cavaliers to close the season well, Boyle said, “we have to become a really good defensive team and a rebounding team. Because again I just think we get a false sense of security when our offense is going well.
“We’re about to play two really good teams, and unless we defend [Virginia is likely to struggle]. We’re not going to score 80 or 90 points on those teams.”