CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the University of Virginia women’s basketball team, its final two regular-season games represented opportunities to secure résumé-enhancing victories.
The Cavaliers fell short each time, losing 66-55 at No. 14 Louisville on Thursday night and 59-48 to No. 18 NC State at John Paul Jones Arena on Sunday afternoon.
UVA (18-11 overall, 7-9 ACC) took a three-game winning streak to Louisville, a run that included an upset of then-No. 4 Florida State. Less than a week later, the Wahoos are looking to regroup after two inconsistent performances.
“We need to be getting back to where we were growing and doing well as a team,” head coach Joanne Boyle said Sunday afternoon.
A chance to do so comes this week near Myrtle Beach, in Conway, S.C., site of the 40th annual ACC women’s tournament. Virginia, the No. 8 seed, has a first-round bye. In the second round, UVA will take on No. 9 seed Wake Forest (15-14, 6-10) at 2 p.m. Thursday at the HTC Center.
The winner will face No. 1 seed Notre Dame, the three-time defending ACC champion, in the quarterfinals Friday at 2 p.m.
In its regular-season game against Wake Forest, Virginia won 60-57 in overtime Feb. 12 at JPJ.
“Going into the ACC tournament, we know we’re just going to have to grind,” said guard Breyana Mason, Virginia’s only senior. “This is a special team and a team that I enjoy playing with and playing for, so we’re going to try our best to keep this thing going as long as we can.”
This is Boyle’s sixth seasons with the Cavaliers, who have yet to reach the NCAA tournament during her tenure. A win over Louisville or NC State would have strengthened Virginia’s case dramatically. Now the `Hoos probably need to win at least one game in Conway to stay in contention for the NCAAs.
Boyle did not want her players worrying about bracketology as UVA prepared to meet the Wolfpack (22-7, 12-4). This was the final regular-season game at JPJ for Mason, who was honored before the game in a Senior Day ceremony (along with student-manager Anna Cho).
“Today was more about how great [the players have] been with each other and how well they’ve treated each other and served each other,” Boyle said. “We’ve learned a lot this year, and tonight was an opportunity to put it all together, go out there and enjoy it and [fight] for each other and celebrate Bre … Talking about the [NCAA] tournament, we’ve done that before, so they know what’s out there for us.
“We’re a bubble team, and we’ve got to be able to take care of business.”
On an afternoon when the Cavaliers wore pink uniforms to help raise awareness about breast cancer, their defense wasn’t great, but their offense was a bigger problem. Virginia led only once, at 1-0.
“I think [NC State head coach Wes Moore] did a really good job,” Boyle said. “He was going to make us shoot outside. He wasn’t going to give us anything in the paint.”
The 48 points were a season low for UVA, as was its field-goal percentage (28.6). Only one Cavalier scored in double figures: junior wing Aliyah Huland El, who had 10 points in 17 minutes off the bench. The `Hoos turned the ball over 16 times.
Even so, Virginia had its chances late, largely because of the Wolfpack’s woes from the line. NC State missed 11 free throws in the fourth quarter, but the `Hoos failed to capitalize. They made only 6 of 16 shots from the floor in the final quarter.
It was “a physical game,” Boyle said, “and I think we didn’t finish well when we did get in the paint. We left a lot of bunnies on the rim. We didn’t really see other opportunities, like the drive and the kicks that were there. I felt like we were just trying to put our head down and go to the basket and not really see what was going on around us.”
Mason, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer this season, did not record her first points until the 8:17 mark of the fourth quarter, when she made a short jumper. She was 0 for 4 to that point.
“It was a combination of defense and shots not falling,” Mason said. “I wasn’t trying to think too much about it being Senior Day. I was just trying to go through my normal routine. Things aren’t always going to go the way you want them to, but at the end I was able to get some buckets to fall.”
Mason’s 3-pointer with 4:54 to play cut the Wolfpack’s lead to 49-41. A Huland El trey made it a seven-point game with 1:21 remaining, but UVA got not closer. With 16.7 seconds left, Boyle substituted for Mason, who received a warm ovation from the crowd as she walked to the bench.
“I have a lot of great memories here on this court,” Mason said, “and over my four years we’ve won more games here than we’ve lost. So I keep that in the back of my mind. ”
The Cavaliers had hoped to send Mason out on a winning note at JPJ. To extend her college career, they know they’ll need to play better — and harder — in Conway.
In the postseason, no “team is coming in and changing who they are,” Boyle said. “You are who you are. And so before you talk about [strategy], or this or that, you have to [ask], `What are you going to bring? Who do you want to be in there with? Who do you want to be in the trenches with and what are you going to do to stay in that tournament?’ Because it is one and done.”