By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia women’s basketball team, its bus ride Saturday from John Paul Jones Arena to Piscataway, N.J., took seven long hours, due to heavy traffic and bad weather.
“We were crawling at times,” head coach Joanne Boyle recalled with a laugh.
Boyle might have worried that the trip would take a toll on her team, but her concerns proved unfounded. On the road for the second straight game in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, the Cavaliers took the lead for good in the second quarter Sunday afternoon and cruised to a 71-55 victory over Rutgers.
“You would have thought we’d have been the sluggish team,” Boyle said, but rarely have the Wahoos looked sharper this season than they did against the Scarlet Knights.
“They had their minds made up, they had a goal in front of them, and they just kept pushing toward that,” Boyle said.
Monday brought another bus ride for the `Hoos, but this one, from Piscataway to Long Island, N.Y., was much shorter than Saturday’s journey, and the players have come to enjoy the camaraderie these road trips inspire.
“It brings us together even more,” guard Faith Randolph said, “only having each other. We’re just all in together.”
Boyle encourages her players to be “road warriors,” and their next battle comes Tuesday night. At 7 o’clock, UVA (18-15) meets Hofstra (24-8) in a third-round WNIT game in Hempstead, N.Y.
Virginia opened the 64-team tournament Thursday by rallying for a 52-50 victory over VCU in Richmond. Randolph, the team’s only senior, led the `Hoos with 21 points in that game, and she totaled 23 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals three days later against Rutgers.
Any game now could be her last as a Cavalier, Randolph knows, but “I don’t really worry about that,” she said Monday. “I just worry about the task at hand.”
This has been a trying season for Virginia, which is in its fifth season under Boyle. One of UVA’s three freshmen, 6-3 Shakyna Payne, ended up redshirting because of a leg injury, and the team’s best player, Randolph, missed nine games with a broken thumb on her shooting hand.
Most recently, sophomore guard Mikayla Venson, UVA’s leading scorer, left the program on the eve of the WNIT. With Venson gone, junior Breyana Mason has taken over most of the point-guard responsibilities.
“This year the team has dealt with a lot of things,” Randolph said. “Adversity can bring you closer, and I feel like we’re definitely seeing that now.”
Boyle said: “They’re all about the team, they’re all about playing for each other. With all the adversity, they’ve just come together and there’s a different spirit about them. There’s unity.
“I’ve talked to them about it all year long, about what you can do when you’re united as a team. It’s the best thing to see as a coach, because you can teach Xs and Os, but [unity is] such a big part of it.”
Virginia closed the regular season with a 60-55 loss to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Then came a 57-53 loss to Duke in the ACC tournament, after which the players scattered for spring break.
They returned to Grounds, Boyle said, with renewed energy.
“They were like, `We want to be in postseason,’ ” Boyle said. “They practiced like that, and they’ve played like that. They wanted to prove they had more left.”
UVA’s regulars include two sophomores from New Jersey: forward Lauren Moses (Mount Holly) and guard Aliyah Huland El (Randolph). Between them, Moses and Huland El had several dozen friends and family members in the stands at Rutgers, and they’re likely to have large cheering sections at Hofstra, too.
The `Hoos are happy to have the support. They’re not ready for their season to end.
“Every game we’re able to play, we just seize the opportunity and look forward to it,” Randolph said.