By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For about an hour — from the pregame Senior Night ceremony through the end of the first half — things went as scripted for the UVa women’s basketball team Thursday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
Honored before the game were guards Lexie Gerson, Kelsey Wolfe and Ataira Franklin, and in front of a crowd that included their parents, the seniors then tore into Miami. During one first-half sequence, Gerson stole the ball and passed to Wolfe, who fed Franklin for a 3-pointer that pushed Virginia’s lead in this ACC game to 11-3.
By game’s end, however, the Cavaliers were in disarray. The Hurricanes, who trailed by 11 with 7:30 left in the first half, stormed back to defeat the Wahoos 83-63, spoiling the regular-season home finale for Gerson, Wolfe and Franklin.
“It’s tough,” said Franklin, who led Virginia with 17 points. “Because it’s Senior Night, you get eager and you get excited, and there’s a lot of emotions that go into wanting to finish strong and put on a good show for the fans for the last time. And I felt like everyone was on [the same] page with that excitement and that hunger going into the game.”
But the `Hoos (13-15, 6-9) grew complacent, third-year coach Joanne Boyle said, as they have many times this season. Franklin agreed with that assessment.
“Once Miami threw a punch at us we were never able to punch back or stop the bleeding or cut down their transition points or keep them off the offensive boards,” Franklin said, “things that down the line ended up costing us the game.”
Boyle has been coaching for more than two decades. Until Thursday night, she said, she’d never seen a Senior Night game turn out so disastrously for one of her teams.
“We took a lead and they fought back and they never looked back and they gained confidence,” Boyle said. “We were individuals out there. We didn’t play our game.”
The loss was the fifth in six games for UVa. With a victory over Miami (15-13, 7-8), Virginia would have clinched a first-round bye in the ACC tournament, which starts Wednesday in Greensboro, N.C.
The Cavaliers have one final opportunity to secure that reward. They close the regular season Sunday afternoon in Tallahassee against Florida State (18-10, 6-9). FSU lost at home Thursday night to Georgia Tech.
On Jan. 19, the `Hoos knocked off the then-No. 17 Seminoles 85-68 at JPJ. A sweep of the `Noles would clinch the No. 9 seed in the ACC tournament — and a first-round bye — for Virginia.
“I just think that it comes down to pride for us at this point,” Franklin said. “I felt like there was a point in the game [against Miami] where we just quit. We played like we didn’t have any fight left in us, and Florida State, they’re going to come back wanting revenge, since we beat them here, and we just can’t afford to go down and play away and play like we played here tonight.”
Early in the second half, UVa stretched its lead to 41-34 on two free throws by freshman guard Breyana Mason. But the `Canes, exploiting their superior athleticism, answered with a 15-2 run, and the `Hoos never recovered.
“I thought earlier in the game we were sharing the ball more, we were passing a lot more,” Wolfe said. “I think at that point we should have just kept it going and punched back when they made their run.”
Virginia’s defense grew more porous as the game went on. Miami shot 61.8 percent from the floor in the second half, with many of its baskets coming on layups, and 55.7 percent for the game.
UVa, meanwhile, made only 18 of 64 shots from the floor (28.1 percent). Wolfe and Gerson were a combined 1 for 13. Mason was 3 for 11, and reserve post player Sydney Umeri was 0 for 5. Sophomore guard Faith Randolph, Virginia’s second-leading scorer, finished with five points, nearly eight below her average.
“It was tough, because as well as we’ve been playing at home, it seemed like Miami got hot in that way and we kind of got a little cold,” Franklin said. “Even at the end of the first half we went on a little scoring drought, and they kind of made a run there. But we just weren’t able to hit shots, and we weren’t executing well on offense, and for everything we did wrong, they did right.”
Junior post player Sarah Imovbioh battled foul trouble but still contributed 12 points and eight rebounds for Virginia, and Mason scored 12 points.
With 36.5 seconds left, Boyle substituted for her seniors, and the crowd rose to applaud Gerson, Franklin and Wolfe as they walked to the bench, thanking them for persevering through injury-marred careers.
Sunday brings another game for the seniors and another opportunity for the Cavaliers to gain momentum heading into the ACC tournament.
“We just gotta stay together,” Boyle said. “We’re preaching team ball. We show moments of it, we come out, we’re strong, we fight in games.”
But when the `Hoos “don’t have that element of `team’ and `fight,’ ” Boyle said, they struggle.
“It’s who we have to become,” she said. “It’s the only way we’re going to win.”
In addition to the three senior players, the team’s two fourth-year student-managers, Jessica Hendrick and Evan Teague, were recognized before the game Thursday night.