By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — They grew up about 25 miles apart — Dominique Toussaint on Staten Island, N.Y., and Jocelyn Willoughby in East Orange, N.J. — and each was the Gatorade girls basketball player of the year in her respective state in 2015-16. Until Toussaint and Willoughby arrived at the University of Virginia this summer, though, they had never played basketball with or against each other.
“I knew of Dominique, but I didn’t know her,” Willoughby said Wednesday at John Paul Jones Arena.
Now good friends, Toussaint and Willoughby make up half of the freshman class on the UVA women’s team, and they’re expected to contribute immediately. In Virginia’s scrimmage last week against George Washington at the Smith Center in D.C., each started. The 6-0 Willoughby scored a team-high 20 points, and the 5-9 Toussaint added 12 points.
Classmate Felicia Aiyeotan, a 6-9 center, came off the bench to contribute eight points, seven rebounds and one blocked shot in 16 minutes. The Cavaliers’ fourth freshman, 6-3 forward Lisa Jablonowski, did not score in the scrimmage, but an ankle injury has slowed her, “and she’s taken a little bit longer to come back off of it,” head coach Joanne Boyle said. “But she’s coming along.”
The freshmen are “all so very different,” Boyle said, “but Dom and Joc in particular are just next-level athletes, and they’re so explosive in so many ways. That’s what really stood out to me [the newcomers]. And then Fe’s size. She’s a little bit of an anomaly at 6-9.”
Willoughby said: “I think we have a very strong class. I think the coaches did a good job recruiting and getting more length and size, and hopefully they can continue to get more talent. But I think we can have a huge impact on the season.
“I have high expectations for myself and our class and the team overall.”
A graduate of the prestigious Newark Academy in Livingston, N.J., Willoughby is exceedingly versatile, however, and could also play point guard, shooting guard or small forward. For that matter, Boyle said, she would not hesitate to ask Willoughby to defend a center.
Willoughby made 8 of 10 shots from the floor against GW, including both of her 3-point attempts, and also had five rebounds and two steals.
“It’s crazy how physically gifted she is,” Boyle said.
Moreover, Boyle said, Willoughby is “very intentional about everything she does. She’s very coachable. If I tell that we’re missing this, she goes and does it. I just think she wants to be really, really good, and she will do anything you ask of her, and she’s physically capable of doing it.”
Toussaint, who starred in the storied program at Christ the King Regional High School in Queens, N.Y., can play either guard position, and she’s difficult to defend.
“Off the bounce, she’s so quick,” Boyle said of Toussaint.
Jablonowski is from Luxembourg, where she established herself as one of that country’s top players. Aiyeotan is a native of Nigeria who spent her high school years in the United States, first at Neumann Goretti High in Philadelphia and then, as a senior, at Blair Academy in New Jersey.
Toussaint, who was the first player in the class to commit to UVA, played AAU ball with Aieyeotan in the Philadelphia area.
“I think I played a part in her committing here,” Toussaint said, smiling.
Since their days at AAU teammates, Aiyeotan has “become exponentially better,” Toussaint said. “It’s amazing how much better she is, and I’m so proud of that. I’m excited for her.”
In the scrimmage, Boyle said, Aiyeotan “didn’t finish as well as I would have liked her to, but she got enough of a feel for what it’s going to be like. I didn’t think the pace bothered her, to be honest, and when she gets stronger, the weight and the strength will just elevate her game.”
Aiyeotan has already made significant progress, said Willoughby, who came to UVA in July for the final session of summer school.
“They were here the session before — they being Dominique and Felicia — and after I saw Felicia and how much she’s grown in such a short period of time, I’m super-excited for what’s to come for her,” Willoughby said. “She’s gotten so much stronger, more aggressive. Her rebounding’s improved, just catching the ball, and I think if she can continue to improve on those things, she’ll be out of this world.”
This is Boyle’s sixth season at UVA, where her overall record is 90-72. The Wahoos, 6-10 in ACC play, finished 18-16 overall last season after losing to Hofstra in the WNIT’s third round.
Opponents outrebounded Virginia by an average of two boards per game in 2015-16, and “I think right now that is our Achilles heel,” Boyle said.
“We’re stressing it, we’re working on it, we’re not going to compromise, we’re going to take kids out of games for [not rebounding]. It’s got to be the No. 1 thing for us.”
GW outrebounded Virginia 43-41 in the scrimmage, which Boyle said was “a good first test, just being able to play against somebody else, going on the road, and playing in a different environment.”
Willoughby said: “It was different from just playing each other. It definitely showed some things that we need to work on individually and as a team. I thought it was a good first exhibition for us.”
For the Cavaliers, the season officially starts next Friday with a 7 p.m. game against Middle Tennessee State at JPJ.
“I’m excited for it,” Toussaint said, “but the thing that’s going to make me nervous is that I know a lot of people from my dorm that are coming and I know people from home that are coming. But other than that, once the ball goes up in the air, I think I’m going to be fine.”
Willoughby said: “I’m not really nervous. I’m more excited than anything else. I feel like it’s so unbelievable that this season is already here. Time’s just flown by. So from that standpoint, I’m taken aback. But for the games to start, I’m ready.”