July 30, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — The first two women’s basketball players to join the University of Virginia’s recruiting class for 2015-16, Debra Ferguson and Moné Jones needed no introduction to each other. They’d been friends for years after meeting on the AAU circuit.

Jones, a resident of Durham, N.C., had no such relationship with Shakyna Payne, who’s from Acworth, Ga., near Atlanta. But after Payne committed to UVa last September, they exchanged phone numbers and “started talking instantly,” Jones recalled. “We have a bond that’s unbreakable.”

As they head into their fifth season under head coach Joanne Boyle, the Cavaliers are seeking their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009-10. For the breakthrough to occur in 2015-16, UVa’s first-year class will need to have an immediate impact.

The 6-3 Jones expects nothing less of herself.

“I’m here to do whatever the coaching staff needs me to do,” she said last week at John Paul Jones Arena. “And if that’s rebounding, blocking shots, altering shots, that’s my goal.”

A graduate of Riverside High, where she posted career averages of 11.7 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, Jones chose UVa over LSU and Texas A&M. She’s been at the University taking classes and training with her new team this summer, as have the 6-3 Payne and the 6-4 Ferguson, and the early reviews on Jones are positive.

“She’s been impressive,” Boyle said. “We really wanted to add length and athleticism to the program, and outside shooting from that 4 position, and I think she brings those elements.”

Jones, who also was a standout volleyball player in high school, is a power forward with a good touch from the perimeter, commonly known in today’s game as a “stretch 4.” But she might also be an option at small forward before her UVa career ends.

“She picks up things really quickly,” Boyle said. “I think she’s got a really, really high basketball IQ. She’s a hard worker, and the way the game’s going now, it’s really not about a position, when you’re talking about a stretch 4 or a big 3. They’re similar in some ways. So it’s mostly just her versatility that was really, really attractive.”

The Wahoos are coming off a season in which they finished 17-14 after losing at Old Dominion in a WNIT first-round game. Their leading rebounder in 2014-15, 6-2 center Sarah Imovbioh, transferred to South Carolina after the season, leaving a sizable hole in the frontcourt that Jones, Payne and Ferguson will be asked to help fill.

Each would have been the team’s tallest player in 2014-15.

Payne, who transferred from Etowah High to Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy before her senior year, averaged 14.2 points and 7.3 rebounds in 2014-15 on a team that advanced to Georgia’s Class A championship game for private schools.

She was named second-team all-state. Payne is more of a traditional post player than Jones, but she’s also comfortable facing the basket.

“She can shoot it as well,” Boyle said.

Ferguson, a graduate of Amherst County High, was the first of the freshmen to arrive at UVa after the 2014-15 academic year ended. A knee injury hindered Ferguson during her high school career, and she’s struggled with her fitness, so it’s difficult to predict what her role will be this season.

“It’s so early in the process,” Boyle said. “I think Debra’s goal was to come in this spring and summer, and to really get with the strength and conditioning staff and [athletic] trainers and just get in great shape, and then obviously get some skill work done with [the coaching staff].

“And I think she’s really accomplishing it. She’s moving better, she’s running better, she feels better. I think the goal now is to translate all the cardio and the conditioning onto the basketball court.”

As a true low-post player, Ferguson adds “an element that we haven’t had in such a long time. We can definitely use her. We just gotta kind of wait it out and see how she does.”

There are no questions about Jones’ ability to contribute as a freshman. She has a big personality and exudes confidence, and she backs it up on the court.

“She’s got a high ceiling moving forward,” Boyle said. “She’s not afraid, she’s not timid. She works through mistakes. She can shoot that 15-, 17-foot shot consistently.

“She can really attack the basket, and she’s a good offensive rebounder when she keeps her mind focused on that. And she can finish on the block. She’s long [and lean] but she’s not afraid to be down there. And I think she has the basketball IQ to know when to be outside and what she can do inside against smaller players or people her size. So I think we can use her a couple different places out there.”

Jones said: “It just depends on the matchup of the game. If you have a bigger post player, of course I’m going to take him outside. If I have somebody smaller playing on me, I’m going to take him in the post.”

For Jones, who was born and raised in Durham, this summer marks the longest stretch that she’s been away from her parents.

“But I’m really enjoying it,” she said, “adapting to the campus, adapting to college life and the college game. It’s been a smooth transition, and I love it.”

Jones, who’s rooming with Payne this summer, plans to major in media studies, and she could not have appeared more comfortable during a recent interview at JPJ. Near the end of a long day, her enthusiasm remained palpable.

“Very gregarious,” Boyle said, laughing.

Jones’ parents are excellent athletes, and her mother, Sherai, starred in volleyball at North Carolina Central. Had Jones pursued volleyball, she might well have earned scholarship offers in that sport. “But basketball has always been in my heart, and volleyball couldn’t replace it,” she said, “so I stuck with basketball.”

Jones, who committed to the `Hoos last August, followed the team’s ups and downs closely during the season that followed. She’s confident a breakthrough is imminent.

“We’re almost there,” she said.

Six of the Cavaliers’ top seven scorers from last season are back: guards Faith Randolph (16.4 ppg), Mikayla Venson (11.9) and Breyana Mason (9.5), 6-2 forward Lauren Moses (6.1), 6-1 swingman Aliyah Huland El (5.6) and 6-1 forward Sydney Umeri (2.7).

Moreover, guard J’Kyra Brown, a transfer from East Carolina, is eligible after sitting out last season.

“We’re so close to getting over that hump,” Jones said. “It’s just little tweaks here and there, and we have the pieces to do it this year. We have the height. We have Faith, who is our senior, our leader. We have our point guard [in Venson]. We have the pieces to make it, and I feel like starting this summer, the workouts we’re doing and how intense it’s been, we’re preparing for it.”

Her days often start early, with morning workouts. Between her basketball and academic obligations, Jones sometimes doesn’t get to rest until evening.

“It has been a grind, but I’m loving it,” she said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

She likes the independence of college life, Jones said, and “also being around a group of girls that always have your back. That’s an amazing feeling to be around these girls, my teammates. They’re an amazing group of girls. We always have fun together, on and off the floor, and I’m really glad to be here.”

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