By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — University of Virginia center Felicia Aiyeotan could have challenged Virginia Tech’s Erinn Brooks late in the game Thursday night at John Paul Jones Arena. Aiyeotan, a 6-9 freshman, already had four blocked shots in this Commonwealth Clash match-up, and a fifth might have given the Cavaliers a record margin of victory in a series that dates back to 1974.
But there was no need for Aiyeotan — or her teammates — to get greedy. And so Brooks scored in the lane with 7.5 seconds left, and Virginia settled for a 49-point win. That was plenty convincing for a team that’s struggled at times this season to close out games after building big leads.
Against the 19th-ranked Hokies (16-4 overall, 3-4 ACC), the Wahoos rarely lapsed and never collapsed. They scored the first nine points of the first quarter, the first 13 of the second quarter, and the first seven of the third quarter.
“I felt the girls were completely locked in from start to finish tonight,” UVA head coach Joanne Boyle said after her team’s 76-27 victory.
“We had such a great start, and it just kept going. But credit to the girls, they didn’t relax. We were able to use the whole bench. There was fresh energy out there. They did it all. ”
The 49-point margin of victory matched the largest in a series that Virginia leads 46-12. The `Hoos won 93-44 in 1990-91 and 90-41 in 1996-97. But those UVA teams were nationally ranked powerhouses. This result was more surprising and, perhaps, more satisfying.
After winning 18 straight in this series, Virginia dropped both of its meetings with Virginia Tech last season.
Asked what went through her head when she looked at the scoreboard Thursday night and saw her team leading by 50 points, Boyle smiled.
“I just said, `I want a few more of these,’ ” Boyle told reporters. “That was my thought: `Can I have a couple more of these?’ ”
She’s been on the other side of one-sided games as a head coach, said Boyle, who’s in her sixth season at UVA, so “I know the feeling. It’s not fun at all to be on that end of the floor. But it happens. It’s sports, and my focus is on what we can do to not only win this game but to keep getting better and get us in a position to have this focused team come out every night and play like that.”
Freshman forward Jocelyn Willoughby led the Cavaliers (14-6, 3-4) with a game-high 18 points. She also had five rebounds, two assists and one steal.
“Obviously, Joc doesn’t play like a first-year,” Boyle said.
Also scoring in double figures for UVA were point guard Breyana Mason (17 points), the team’s only senior, and freshman guard Dominique Toussaint (11 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals).
Toussaint “brings high energy,” Boyle said. “She’s growing. She’s really started to learn from some of her mistakes early in the year.”
Virginia’s other freshmen — Aiyeotan and 6-3 forward Lisa Jablonowski — come off the bench. Aiyeton, a native of Nigeria, contributed four points, seven rebounds and four blocks in 15 minutes against the Hokies. Jablonowski, who’s from Luxembourg, was in perpetual motion during her 16 minutes on the court, totaling two points, two rebounds, one assist and two steals.
“With Lisa, you never know what you’re going to get,” Boyle said, smiling, “but you’re going to get a lot of energy.”
Virginia, which played an aggressive zone defense throughout the game, outrebounded the Hokies 49-33 and held them to almost unimaginably low shooting percentages. Virginia Tech shot 18.8 percent from the floor and missed 27 of its 29 attempts from beyond the 3-point arc.
“Defensively, they really stifled us,” said Kenny Brooks, the Hokies’ first-year coach. “They were the better team, and they deserved this win in the fashion they got it.”
This has been a trying season for the `Hoos, who have led at halftime in 18 of their 20 games. In their losses to Northwestern, Syracuse and then-No. 8 Louisville, the Cavaliers squandered double-digit leads in the second half. Last weekend at Pitt, Virginia led by six points in the fourth quarter but ended up losing 62-54.
“We’ve had some games where we got off to a great start and then kind of lost it, so learning to be consistent and keeping up the energy throughout the game was really a focus for us,” Willoughby said. “I’m proud that we did that tonight.”
Through it all, Willoughby said, the Cavaliers have stayed positive.
“I think that we knew what we needed to fix,” she said, “and a lot of our issues were things that we can control, not [things] that other teams were necessarily forcing us to do. And I think that’s part of the reason why there’s a lot of potential and optimism for the games ahead of us.
“Obviously, we were disappointed that we lost some of those games, being so close, but there was never a moment where personally I felt, and I don’t think anyone else felt, `Oh, this is going to be a long season, and we can’t achieve our goal at the end of the day.’ ”
At halftime Thursday night, the Cavaliers led 41-16. Boyle’s message to her players was simple: Don’t look at the scoreboard.
“I didn’t have to say much,” Boyle said later. “I could see it on their faces: They knew what they needed to do.”
Next up for Virginia is a Sunday date with No. 8 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. Then come games at JPJ against ACC rivals Georgia Tech (Feb. 2) and No. 14 Duke (Feb. 5).
The Cavaliers, looking to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time under Boyle, know their margin for error is thin.
Virginia’s ACC losses — to Syracuse, Louisville, North Carolina and Pitt — made its “path a little bit harder,” Boyle said, “but there’s a path for us, and we’ve just got to dial in. And if we come out like we did tonight, then you can write your own story. We gotta take care of business. We’re going to face a lot more talented and top-10, top-20 teams, so we’ll have opportunities. But we have to take advantage of them.”
Thursday night was an excellent start.
“It was really good,” Mason said, “to be able to come out and perform the way that we did for 40 minutes and not let up and just have a really fun game.”