By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Given her success at Richmond and California, this is not where Joanne Boyle expected to be four seasons into her tenure as head coach of the UVa women’s basketball team.
The Cavaliers are 72-56 under Boyle, with two trips to the WNIT and none to the NCAA tournament.
In three seasons at UR, followed by six at Cal, Boyle posted a record of 204-93, with five appearances in the NCAAs and one WNIT championship, and her teams went 104-52 in conference games. Virginia is 30-36 in ACC play since Boyle took over.
“I think any coach that’s here at UVa, and every coach I’ve ever worked with, we always put more pressure on ourselves than anybody,” Boyle said recently in her office at John Paul Jones Arena.
“I’m the first to say I want to be better, and I want this team to be able to reach its potential, and to elevate this program. So I’m the first to look at myself before I’ll look at anybody else. So the process has been very different, and there’s all different reasons for it, but in the end I am and want to be responsible for moving it forward. And so, I take it very personally that it’s been a four-year ordeal.”
The Wahoos played well for stretches in 2014-15, and in their regular-season finale they upset No. 8 Louisville 75-59 at JPJ. But Virginia turned in a lackluster performance in its only game at the ACC tournament, losing 62-52 to Miami, and also looked uninspired in its season finale, a 69-62 loss to Old Dominion in Norfolk in the WNIT’s first round.
UVa, which finished with a 17-14 record, entered the postseason with only one senior, forward Sarah Beth Barnette, but since that game two players with eligibility remaining have left the program: 5-11 guard Tiffany Suarez and 6-2 center Sarah Imovbioh.
Suarez averaged only 1.6 points per game in 2014-15, and her role wasn’t likely to grow next season. J’Kyra Brown, a 5-11 guard who sat out this season after transferring to UVa from East Carolina, will be eligible in 2015-16, and Boyle expects her to be a key part of the backcourt rotation.
Imovbioh, however, led the `Hoos in rebounds (10.8 per game) and was second on the team in scoring (12.6 ppg). Her departure means the Cavaliers figure to rely heavily on freshman post players in 2015-16.
Three recruits signed with Virginia in November, each of whom would have been Boyle’s tallest player this season: 6-3 MonÃ© Jones from Durham, N.C., 6-4 Shakyna Paye from Acworth, Ga., and 6-4 Debra Ferguson from Madison Heights.
Jones is the most highly regarded of the three, followed by Payne. Ferguson is a traditional post player, the “meat and potatoes down low,” Boyle said, “and then you have Kyna and Mo, who can extend it and shoot it, can really spread the floor. So there’s some versatility in that group.”
“That’s the good thing about Syd and Lauren,” Boyle said. “It’s not like we don’t have anybody that’s been here. We have two people that have played a lot of minutes, and you bring in three [freshmen] that have all played at a very high level. And even though we do have some youth [in the frontcourt] and they’re going to get thrown into the fire, we do have very experienced guards.”
That group includes rising senior Faith Randolph, rising junior Breyana Mason and rising sophomores Mikayla Venson and Aliyah Huland El, and there’s also Brown, who’ll give Boyle another option in the backcourt.
Brown averaged 5.9 points for ECU in 2013-14 and twice was named Conference USA’s freshman of the week. She scored a career-high 29 points against Louisiana Tech, hitting 11 of 14 shots from the floor, including 6 of 8 from long range.
“She can score,” Boyle said, “and she’s a great rebounding guard.”
Randolph (16.4 ppg) led the `Hoos in scoring this season and was named to the All-ACC second team. Venson (11.9 ppg), who made the ACC’s all-freshman team, was Virginia’s third-leading scorer and made a team-high 61 treys. As productive as Randolph and Venson were, however, each can raise her level of play.
Venson finished the season with more turnovers (89) than assists (74).
“I think Mikayla kind of ebbed and flowed,” Boyle said. “She didn’t play high school basketball, so her freshman year I think was spent learning how to play with other players, which she hadn’t had an opportunity to do. So I think that was part of her growth. We’ve definitely talked to her about the assist-to-turnover ratio and being able to understand how important that is at the point guard spot.”
Randolph attempted 439 field goals in 2014-15 and shot only 39.9 percent. No other Cavalier attempted more than 293 shots from the floor.
“Faith has to become more consistent,” Boyle said. “She by no means is a selfish player, but I think for Faith, she’s going to have to give up her bad shots, and she might have to give up a couple others to have more assists for the team.
“The ball has to move more on the offensive end of the floor. And so I think everybody’s got to share that basketball a little bit more. I think we got a little pigeonholed into not moving the ball at times. That’s hurt our assists and it probably put us in a position to turn the ball over more.”
Mason averaged 9.5 points and led UVa in 3-point accuracy (43.5 percent), but she deferred to teammates on offense more often than Boyle would have preferred.
“With her personality, obviously she’s very laidback and she wants to get everybody involved, but because of her talent, she’s got to be able to be assertive more times,” Boyle said. “If she’s in a flow, she needs to be able to stay in that flow. She’s one of our best north-south guards. She’s one of our best, if not our best, off-the-dribble guard.
“When I say north-south, I mean attacking the rim, and Bre can do that better than anybody [else on the team]. She’s got to be able to come in next year and improve that part of her game.”
Huland El, a prolific scorer in high school, rarely found her offensive rhythm as a UVa freshman, when she averaged 5.6 points. She shot only 24.7 percent from 3-point range and 33.3 percent overall. A long-armed, athletic player, she struggled often at the defensive end, too.
“In high school she played the center,” Boyle said. “They sat in a 2-3 zone, and she played the middle of the zone. So she’s never really learned how to play defense. It was so new to her.”
The 6-1 Huland El can be a capable outside shooter, UVa’s coaches believe, but they want to see her do more than put up 3-pointers.
“We need her to be able to drive, because she’s long, and she can really finish at the rim well, and she’s got to be able to hold the contact,” Boyle said. “That was part of her high school game.
“She’s not afraid to put the work in. I think she’s just got to be able to fight through some moments where she just kind of hit the wall, like all freshmen, and learn how to do that.”
The offseason strength-and-conditioning program will be pivotal for Huland El and several teammates, including Moses, Umeri and Brown. Boyle wants her team to run and press more in 2015-16, and to do so effectively, the Cavaliers must get fitter, especially the post players.
“We have to be better-conditioned athletes,” Boyle said. “We have to put in all the things it takes to become very conditioned athletes, from conditioning to nutrition to the weight room.”
The Cavaliers’ team chemistry needs to improve, too.
“We had some alpha personalities [this season], and we’ve talked about that,” Boyle said. “The better everybody works together, the less it has to be about personality. We need leaders, but we also need followers, and our best leaders also at times can be our best followers … We have to be able to be in it for each other, completely in it for each other. The team has got to come first.”