By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the University of Virginia women’s basketball team led Northwestern by 18 points with eight minutes left in the third quarter.
In its ACC opener, Virginia led No. 21 Syracuse by 17 at the 5:30 mark of the second quarter.
In its second ACC game, Virginia led No. 8 Louisville by 15 at the 3:10 mark of the third quarter.
That this UVA team can compete with elite opponents has been established. But the Cavaliers lost all three of those games, in each case unraveling when their foe applied pressure.
In a span of about 11 minutes in the second half Thursday night, there was a 21-point swing as Virginia saw its 15-point advantage turn into a six-point deficit. The Cavaliers ultimately forced overtime on a last-second 3-pointer by freshman guard Dominique Toussaint, but this was a game they could have, and probably should have, won in regulation.
“I just think we get rocked with a couple of mistakes that can be cleaned up, and we let it snowball,” head coach Joanne Boyle said after the Wahoos fell 86-81 in OT to the Cardinals at John Paul Jones Arena.
“We don’t stop the madness soon enough.”
Virginia (11-4 overall, 0-2 ACC), which plays Sunday afternoon at North Carolina (11-4, 0-2), has led at halftime of every game this season. But a troubling trend has emerged, one Boyle and her players don’t want to define the Cavaliers, who have led by 10 points in 14 of their 15 games this season.
Against Syracuse, the `Hoos turned the ball over 27 times and gave up 26 offensive rebounds. Louisville, led by 6-2 junior Myisha Hines-Allen (31 points, 17 rebounds), grabbed 24 offensive boards and turned them into 26 second-chance points.
The `Hoos had more turnovers in the third quarter (eight) than in the entire first half (five) Thursday night and finished the game with 16.
“Those are the two biggest categories for us right now,” Boyle said. “I don’t know if we just get tight. Obviously with the offensive rebounding, you have to have a will to win at the end of a game … I feel like we’re stuck in mud. Our feet aren’t moving, and we’re just stuck there.
“We have to clean up both ends of the floor. They played their hearts out [against the Cardinals]. I have no problem with their effort. They’re playing great in that respect.”
The Cavaliers’ execution, though, has yet to match their effort. After taking a 48-33 lead on a 3-pointer by junior guard Aliyah Huland El, Virginia turned the ball over on six straight possessions against Louisville’s full-court pressure. The `Hoos did not attempt a shot during that span.
“It’s obviously frustrating,” said Huland El, who finished with a career-high 23 points and season-high eight rebounds.
“It’s not like we haven’t drilled it in practice. We’ve done it since the beginning of the season, making sure that we’re executing in a press break, because every team is going to press in the ACC. At this point, it’s just executing our [press offense] and making good decisions.”
If the result was painful Thursday night, her team’s resilience late in the fourth quarter pleased Boyle. A 3-pointer by junior forward Mariya Moore pushed the Cards’ lead to 68-62 with 1:51 left in the regulation, but the Cavaliers fought back.
“We were definitely grinding to get back in it,” Boyle said. “We weren’t hesitant to shoot the ball. We were more aggressive going to the rim. We’ve still got to finish, but I don’t feel like we were questioning that piece. So hopefully that helped us.”
UVA senior Breyana Mason followed a Willoughby free throw with a trey that made it 68-66 with 1:01 to play. After Moore made 1 of 2 from the line, Toussaint hit a pull-up jumper with 6.5 seconds left.
Two free throws with 4.9 seconds remaining gave Louisville a 71-68 lead, but Toussaint dribbled up the court and calmly buried a 3-pointer from the left wing as time expired.
“Big-time shot,” Louisville head coach Jeff Walz said. “When it left her hand, I’ll be honest, I was like, `It’s going in.’ ”
Hines-Allen and Moore, who combined to score 63 percent of the Cards’ points Thursday night, both fouled out in overtime. But Louisville (14-3, 2-1) hit 11 of 12 free throws in the extra period to hold off the Cavaliers, who had three players foul out Thursday night.
“They’re talented,” Walz said. “We’re very fortunate to steal one on the road.”
The `Hoos will try to do the same Sunday afternoon in Chapel Hill.
“We’ve experienced enough of losing the same way,” Boyle said. “It is now time to step up, everybody take responsibility. This is on all of us.
“I think we just need that one win. We just need to get over the hump.”