By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In 2012-13, the UVa women’s basketball team had a 7-4 record after 11 games. The Cavaliers finished 16-14 that season, their second under head coach Joanne Boyle.
In 2013-14, Virginia was 5-6 at this point of the season and went on to finish 14-17. And so the Wahoos are understandably encouraged by their start this year. They head into a short holiday break with a four-game winning streak and a 9-2 record.
“I think we’ve showed some spurts of some really good basketball, and the potential of being a really good team,” associate head coach Kim McNeill said Sunday night at John Paul Jones Arena.
“But I don’t think we’ve put a complete 40 minutes together yet, and until we do that we’re not where we want to be or we need to be.”
This is the Cavaliers’ best record through 11 games since 2011-12. That team started 9-2 and finished with a 25-11 mark after losing in the WNIT quarterfinals.
Whether this UVa team is a serious candidate for postseason play will be determined during ACC play, which starts Jan. 4 against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. The promise of these Cavaliers, though, is unmistakable.
The newcomers complement a veteran group led by junior guard Faith Randolph (18.9 ppg), sophomore guard Breyana Mason (9.1 ppg) and center Sarah Imovbioh (15.3 ppg, 11.4 rpg). The 6-2 Imovbioh is listed as a senior on the roster, but she’s expected to receive another season of eligibility that would allow her to play for the Cavaliers in 2015-16.
A graduate of nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School, Imovbioh posted 21 points, 10 rebounds and three steals Sunday night in Virginia’s 74-53 win over Howard at JPJ, and Randolph matched her career high with 26 points.
Those were the highlights for the `Hoos, who committed a season-high 25 turnovers against a team that entered with a 1-10 record. Venson contributed 10 points, four assists and two steals, but she also turned the ball over five times, as did Huland El.
UVa also gave up 18 offensive rebounds. Howard, which made only 2 of 28 attempts from 3-point range, turned the ball over 24 times and never led Sunday night. Still, the victory was less than satisfying for the Cavaliers.
“Hopefully that was the ugliest that we will play all year,” McNeill said. “We’ve got it out of our systems, and we will move on.
“Not a lot to take from that game, but a lot to take from the season thus far. We’re 7-0 at home, and that’s good. That’s a really good start, and we’re 9-2 overall. So we’ve done good things. Tonight may have not been the brightest, but a win’s a win and we’ll take it.”
The game was Virginia’s third in six days, and McNeill served as head coach in all three. Boyle is in Africa finalizing her adoption of a young girl. Boyle had planned to miss the Cavaliers’ Dec. 16 date with Longwood but hoped to return for the game against Saint Mary’s two nights later. Bureaucratic delays, however, kept her out of the country for all three games.
In Boyle’s absence, her assistant coaches — Kim McNeill, husband Cory McNeill and La’Keshia Frett Meredith — have capably run the team.
“It’s been a great experience,” Kim McNeill said. “Loved it, just to have the opportunity to coach these young ladies and see how they’d respond. Give credit to Coach Cory and Coach Frett. They’ve been awesome, and the young ladies have been good, too.
“We’ve had some really good practices where they’ve responded. And I don’t feel like there’s been any letdowns. Sometimes they say when the substitute teacher is in, then the class likes to play. But I feel like they’ve been very attentive and really responded to us.”
Still, McNeill’s frustration was apparent at times during timeouts Sunday. Virginia’s errors kept an overmatched opponent in the game.
“I felt like there wasn’t any energy,” McNeill said. “I felt like we were just kind of going through the motions and not really moving on defense and just making careless mistakes that I haven’t seen us do all year long on the offensive end of the floor.”
After missing its first 21 attempts from beyond the arc, Howard finally got a 3-pointer to drop, when Cheyenne Brown made it 59-44 with 5:50 remaining. Brown’s second trey pulled Howard to 62-50 at the 4:41 mark.
From there, however, the Cavaliers took control. Imovbioh scored eight points in the final 3:57 to keep the Bison at bay.
Virginia’s performance Sunday night “was a little rough,” Randolph acknowledged. “Just offensively and defensively, we weren’t in certain positions where we needed to be. But I thought we really pushed through it. I thought our press really helped us get our energy up and get steals and transition and getting easy buckets.”
In addition to scoring at least 20 points for the second straight game, Randolph had seven rebounds, three assists and three steals Sunday night. For as well as she’s been playing, though, Randolph, who’s from Derwood, Md., is happy to have some time at home.
“I think we need this break, just mentally and physically,” Randolph said, “just to get our minds right and just get off our feet and just see our families and just get ready to get back [to work] when we come back on the 26th.”
Virginia’s final two non-conference games will be part of the Holiday Inn Cavalier Classic at JPJ. UVa meets Davidson at 2:30 p.m. Sunday and then takes on Drexel at 7 p.m. next Monday.
To win both “would be a great springboard” into ACC play for the Cavaliers, McNeill said.
“Not making any excuses for the team, but we’re still fairly young,” she said. “We have one senior, and that’s [Sarah Beth Barnette]. We start two juniors, two freshmen and a sophomore. So that’s still a fairly young lineup. Some young ladies that haven’t been through this, haven’t been through this adversity, and usually at this time of the year you see first-years starting to hit that wall a little bit.
“As Faith said, I think it is a good time for us to have a break.”