Oct. 5, 2016

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — With a clear path to the basket, University of Virginia guard J’Kyra Brown drove for what typically would have been a routine layup. Then she encountered Felicia Aiyeotan.

Aiyeotan, a 6-9 freshman, reached up without leaving her feet and blocked Brown’s shot.

The UVA women’s basketball team held its first official practice of 2016-17 on Tuesday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena, and among the new faces were four freshmen: Aiyeotan, 6-3 Lisa Jablonowski, 6-0 Jocelyn Willoughby and 5-9 Dominique Toussaint.

“The first-years, they came in and they started working hard right away,” Breyana Mason said. “They’re definitely going to be players that can help us this year and contribute to this team.”

A 5-8 guard from Woodridge, Mason is a returning starter and the only senior among the 12 players on the Cavaliers’ roster. (Brown, a redshirt junior who began her college career at East Carolina, is also in her fourth year academically.)

Mason has taken on a leadership role with which she would not have been so comfortable as an underclassman.

“But over the years I’ve kind of just progressed, as far as coming out of my shell a little bit,” she said, “so it’s kind of been a natural progression for me.”

For Mason, Tuesday marked her final first practice as a Cavalier, and that “was something I’ve been thinking about since last week,” she said.

“I always get nervous for practice regardless of how old I am. I get those butterflies in my stomach, I’m a little anxious, just excited to get out there and finally get things running.”

The Wahoos are heading into their sixth season under head coach Joanne Boyle, whose overall record with them is 90-72. The `Hoos, 6-10 in ACC play, finished 18-16 overall last season after falling to Hofstra in the WNIT’s third round.

Guard Mikayla Venson, the team’s leading scorer in 2015-16, left the program after the ACC tournament, but the Cavaliers played better without her than they had with her for most of the season.

Virginia won at VCU and at Rutgers in the WNIT before losing at Hofstra.

The WNIT “showed us where we could be and also what we need to work on,” Mason said. “But it gave us a lot of hope and confidence for this season.

“We’re young in some areas, but we definitely have a lot people that have played quality minutes, so that’ll kind of balance itself out as we go. We’re going to hit some tough spots, but I think we have the resolve and leadership to get through that.”

Five of Virginia’s returning players averaged at least 16.5 minutes per game in 2015-16: Mason, the 5-11 Brown, 6-2 junior Lauren Moses, 6-1 junior Aliyah Huland El and 6-3 sophomore Moné Jones, who’s recovering from offseason knee surgery and did not practice Tuesday.

Brown is noticeably fitter than in 2015-16, her first season at UVA, when she averaged 5.0 points and 2.8 rebounds.

“She completely bought in,” Boyle said. “She changed her body. She said she needed to get to this point in her career to really contribute the way she wants to contribute, and so she put in all the work after the season and this summer.”

The Cavaliers, perennially one of the ACC’s shorter teams during Boyle’s tenure, are markedly taller this season, with such players as Aiyeotan, Jablonowski, Moses, 6-3 redshirt freshman Shakyna Payne and 6-4 sophomore Debra Ferguson.

“We have a lot of versatility,” Boyle said. “We have a lot of moving parts, a lot of pieces, and we can do a lot, just because now we’ve got size and we’ve got length and we’ve got big guards.

Jablonowski, who’s from Luxembourg, can play inside or outside, Boyle said. And then there’s Willoughby, who can play shooting guard, small forward or power forward.

Willoughby, a strong, explosive athlete, is not as tall as some of her teammates, but “she’s our best rebounder right now,” Boyle said.

All four of the freshmen are expected to contribute immediately.

“They’re all going to play, and they’re all very different,” Boyle said.

What the first-years have in common, Boyle said, is a strong work ethic and commitment to the game.

“They’re on time, they’re in the gym,” Boyle said. “Other than Dom, who was sick for a couple of days, none of them missed a workout [in the offseason].

The towering Aiyeotan, a native of Nigeria who spent her high school years in Philadelphia and then New Jersey, is the least polished and most intriguing member of the class. She’s added 10 pounds of good weight since arriving at UVA in June.

“She’s come a long way in four years of playing basketball,” Boyle said. “She’s played a very short period of time. And so to see where she was years ago, and even where she was when she first came in, [is impressive], and gaining that muscle mass and having the ability to handle contact and hold people off will help.”

Like the roster, Boyle’s staff has a new look this year. She added Tim Taylor and Katherine Graham as assistant coaches after Kim McNeill and her husband, Cory, left to become head coach and associate head coach, respectively, at Hartford.

This is Taylor’s third stint as a UVA assistant — the first two were under Boyle’s predecessor, Debbie Ryan — and he’s also a veteran high school coach in Central Virginia. It was impossible to miss Taylor at practice Tuesday as he ran several drills and offered detailed instruction to the players.

“He’s just so knowledgeable,” Boyle said. “He’s watched a lot of film on our team, and he’s helped give ideas and thought processes on how to play to our strengths and do the best thing for our team. He’s just a veteran guy that’s been in the game a long time and has a lot of knowledge.”

Another positive, Boyle said, is that Taylor had no biases when he rejoined the program.

“He doesn’t have any of those preconceived notions of what people can or cannot do,” he said. “So he comes in with fresh eyes, and he’s brought some great ideas.”

Meet the Team Day for both UVA basketball squads will be held Sunday, Oct. 23 at JPJ. It will follow the men’s Pepsi Blue-White Scrimmage, which has a 3 p.m. start.

Virginia opens the season Nov. 11 against Middle Tennessee State at JPJ.

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