By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — With 52 seconds to play, she passed to sophomore guard Breyana Mason for a 3-pointer that gave the UVa women’s basketball team a 67-63 lead.
With 12 seconds left, she leaped to a block a 3-point attempt by Jennifer Mathurin, who at 6-1 had six inches on her.
With one second remaining, she grabbed a rebound and hugged the ball until the final horn punctuated Virginia’s 71-63 victory over ACC rival NC State.
UVa guard Mikayla Venson did all of that Thursday night before an appreciative crowd at John Paul Jones Arena. What made her performance so remarkable, though, was her marksmanship.
A 5-7 freshman from Arlington, Venson went 6 for 6 from 3-point range to break the school record shared by Donna Holt (1988), Tammi Reiss (1990) and Kate Mooney (1997). Each had gone 5 for 5 from beyond the arc in a game, and until Thursday night no Cavalier had ever made more 3-pointers without a miss.
Venson finished with 22 points, matching her career high. Another Virginia guard, junior Faith Randolph, equaled her season high with five assists. Randolph came in as the Wahoos’ leading scorer, and she finished with 17 points, but she was happy to facilitate Venson’s gem.
“It’s just feed the hot hand,” said Randolph, who also pulled down a game-high eight rebounds. “It’s really easy. Mikayla’s feeling it, so just give her the ball and let her go to work.”
The victory ended a three-game losing streak for the `Hoos (14-7, 4-4), who play Sunday afternoon at Clemson (9-12, 1-7). The win did not come easily. With 10 minutes to play, the Wolfpack (12-9, 3-5) led by eight, and at the 5:00 mark it was still a five-point game.
That’s when Venson took over, scoring eight straight points — the first six on treys, the last two on a baseline runner — to put the Cavaliers ahead for good.
“Just really proud of the team, just the fight we had in us,” head coach Joanne Boyle said. “We needed that. We needed a gritty game to know what it felt like. I thought we really played just down and dirty tonight, especially down the stretch, and that’s what got us the win.”
Overall, Venson made 7 of 8 attempts from the floor (and 2 of 3 from the line). During the three-game losing streak, she had made only 3 of 14 shots from beyond the arc.
“Luckily I was just getting my shots today,” Venson said. “But like Coach B said, the offensive side of it came and we got our shots and we hit them, but we had a grittiness to us at the end with our defense, and that’s what made us get shots … At the end of the day, it was about defense and playing together as a unit.”
NC State made only one field goal in the final 5:20 and shot 39.4 percent from the floor overall. Had the `Hoos not turned the ball over 16 times — mistakes that led directly to several Wolfpack baskets — that percentage would have been lower.
Still, with the game on the line, the Cavaliers shut down the Pack.
“I think we just really changed our mindsets,” Randolph said. “We’ve been in situations like this [when the defense broke down], but I think we all came together and said, `No, this isn’t going to happen again,’ and we all came together and got the stops we needed to get.”
Boyle said she told her players, “I’m glad it was a gritty win and not a pretty win.” The Cavaliers’ challenge now is to duplicate that intensity and resolve, especially away from JPJ.
“I said the exact same thing in the locker room: `Whatever’s in here right now, you have to bottle that and take it on the road. Because it can’t be a one-and-done thing,’ ” Boyle told reporters.
“They got to feel what it feels like to have to battle in a game. I thought we got the majority of the 50/50 balls down the stretch. I thought we did a great job of boxing out down the stretch. We made our free throws. All the things we talk about, the quote-unquote little things, they’re not little things. Obviously on paper sometimes you read them that way, but it made the difference in the game.”
On a night when center Sarah Imovbioh (six points, four rebounds) struggled to find her rhythm, Virginia’s perimeter attack overwhelmed the Wolfpack. Mason contributed nine points, four rebounds, three assists and one steal and turned the ball over only once.
Mason’s only 3-pointer ended a sequence in which Venson passed up a long attempt to feed her teammate in the left corner, in front of the UVa bench.
“I didn’t want to force the shot up,” Venson said. “[A defender] was contesting the shot, and I wasn’t just going to shoot it up. So I saw Bre in the corner, wide open, and I knew she was going to be able to knock it down. I had the confidence in her, and she did.”
Boyle said: “I’m happy when we play team basketball … I just think we’re harder to guard when we do that.”
She’s also happy when the Cavaliers, who came in ranked 11th among ACC team in field-goal percentage defense, assert themselves at that end of the floor.
“There was a little more pep in our step [on defense],” Boyle said.
Venson said: “I think we just have to take that to the next level now. Coming off of this game, I think this is great for us, but we need to continue to have this grittiness.”