By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Virginia and Dayton took the floor for the start of the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers’ lineup consisted of their four freshmen — Jocelyn Willoughby, Dominique Toussaint, Felicia Aiyeotan and Lisa Jablonowski — and the team’s lone senior, Breyana Mason.
Early in the quarter, Toussaint, a 5-9 guard, drove into the lane and then passed to the 6-9 Aiyeotan for an easy layup. The same thing happened about 25 seconds later. Then the 6-0 Willoughby hit two free throws, and suddenly UVA led Dayton by 12 points in the final game of the Cavalier Classic.
The future of Virginia women’s basketball was on display Thursday night at John Paul Jones Arena, and it looked promising. Toussaint finished with 17 points and five assists — both game highs — in the Cavaliers’ 66-56 victory, and Willoughby added 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
Both players said they noted their class’ presence on the court in the fourth quarter.
“I think that speaks to the strength of our class and the potential impact that we can have on the program,” said Willoughby, who’s from East Orange, N.J. “I know that was something that I really wanted to have and I think the other first-years wanted to have as well.”
Toussaint, who’s from Staten Island, N.Y., said playing with her classmates “just made me happy, because it showed the faith that the coaching staff had in us and what we could bring in the future in ACC play, and I think we did pretty well.”
That’s an understatement. Willoughby, who scored 11 points Wednesday night in Virginia’s first game in the Cavalier Classic, a 56-30 victory over UMBC, was selected as the tournament’s MVP, and Toussaint was also named to the all-tourney team.
Off the bench, Aiyeotan made 3 of 4 shots from the floor against Dayton, and the 6-3 Jablonowski grabbed five rebounds and supplied her trademark hustle.
“We recruited them to come in and contribute, and I think they’ve done a really good job doing that,” Virginia head coach Joanne Boyle said of her newcomers. “It’s put this team in a really good place.”
The freshmen have “done a great job of integrating themselves with the upperclassmen and the upperclassmen have completely welcomed them,” Boyle said. “There’s just no division.”
UVA heads into the new year — and ACC play — with an 11-2 record. This is the Wahoos’ sixth season under Boyle, and only one other time during her tenure has their record been as good through 13 games: in 2011-12, when they were 11-2.
“So we did a really good job,” Boyle said after Virginia’s sixth consecutive win, “but now this won’t matter unless we take care of business [in the ACC].”
Four of UVA’s first six league games are on the road. The `Hoos open conference play Monday night at No. 25 Syracuse (9-5 overall, 0-1 ACC). Then comes Virginia’s ACC home opener Thursday night against No. 8 Louisville (13-2, 1-0) at JPJ.
The Cavaliers’ non-conference losses were to St. John’s, Nov. 25 in the South Point Shootout in Las Vegas, and at Northwestern, Dec. 1 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. In each case Virginia responded with an emphatic victory, beating Nebraska 73-51 on Nov. 26 and Bowling Green 67-47 on Dec. 4.
Not all of her other teams at UVA might have been so resilient, Boyle said Thursday night, but her current players “were able to take the message, put it behind them and just move forward.
“We didn’t play particularly well [against UMBC}, and then we come out today and have a really, really solid, really good win. A big piece of this is that everybody on this team is two feet in and they’re in it for each other. That makes a big, big difference.”
Heading into ACC play, junior forward Lauren Moses leads the `Hoos in scoring and is second in rebounding. Willoughby is second in scoring and first in rebounding. Toussaint leads the team in assists, Mason in steals, 6-1 junior Aliyah Huland El in 3-pointers made.
“On any given night,” Boyle said, different players are capable of leading the team. “You just never know what’s going to happen and who’s going to be on. And that gives us a lot of flexibility on the bench.”
Against Dayton, Boyle said, “I thought everybody contributed: in the biggest way, smallest way, it didn’t matter. When you get to go eight, nine, sometimes 10 deep in your bench, it’s just really nice.”
Dayton (6-7), which defeated Liberty in the Cavalier Classic’s first game Wednesday, proved a stubborn opponent. Not until the 5:56 mark of the second quarter, when Willoughby made two free throws, did Virginia take its first lead.
The Flyers never folded, even after Virginia built its 12-point lead early in the fourth quarter. A 7-0 run by Dayton cut UVA’s lead to 57-52, and the home fans at JPJ grew uneasy. But Toussaint’s driving layup with 3:26 left made it a seven-point game, and the `Hoos kept the Flyers at bay thereafter.
“I definitely think that’s a point of growth for this team,” Willoughby said. “Being in those tough moments and showing that we can pull it out in the end is … only going to help us in the long run. Not every game is going to be easy, especially as we get [into] conference play. We know we’re going to have to grind out some wins, and so just getting used to that I think will definitely help us.”