Adventure in Central America Awaits 'Hoos
July 31, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE — She’s not yet fluent in Spanish, but Jocelyn Willoughby says she’s “proficient,” and she’s eager to test her grasp of the language.
She’ll have an opportunity to do so soon. Willoughby and the other members of the University of Virginia women’s basketball team leave this weekend for Costa Rica. During their weeklong stay in that Central American country, which is northwest of Panama and south of Nicaragua, the Cavaliers will play three games: two against the University of Ottowa and one against the Costa Rica national team.
“I’m excited to see how we react in Costa Rica,” Willoughby said. “That’ll be our first little test.”
Head coach Joanne Boyle said she’ll use the trip to experiment and “look at different lineups and kids playing different positions.” As important as what happens on the court, though, is the team-bonding that occurs off the court during such trips.
“It’s just different,” Boyle said. “You’re traveling during the year with your team, but you go, you play a game, you come home. This is time away. This is bonding. This is creating memories and hopefully having a really good time, with us working together to get ready for the season.”
In August 2014, the Wahoos had to cancel a scheduled trip to Africa because of concerns about the Ebola virus outbreak in the western part of that continent. (The NCAA permits a team to take a foreign tour once every four years.) As Boyle was planning another trip for her team, Arizona State head coach Charlie Turner Thorne recommended Costa Rica as a destination.
“It was intriguing to me,” Boyle said, “because it was a shorter trip and a closer trip. I feel like we’re in a good place with the team, and I wanted the experience. But February is the most important month, and I didn’t want [the team] to be tired in February.”
The `Hoos are coming off a season in which they finished 20-13 and narrowly missed the NCAA tournament. With another win or two, the Cavaliers know, they would have been in.
“It’s definitely fuel for us,” said Willoughby, who led UVA in rebounding (6.2 per game) and was second in scoring (9.8 ppg) last season.
“One of the conversations we had at the end of last year was [about how] we learned that we can’t drop some of those games. We can’t leave the decision up to the [NCAA selection] committee. Even though we still felt like we were deserving, don’t leave it to chance.”
Among the Cavaliers who have one year of eligibility left, graduate student J’Kyra Brown said, the message has been clear: “This is our last go-round. Let’s make the most of it.”
The 2016-17 season was Boyle’s sixth at UVA, where her record is 110-85, with four appearances in the WNIT and none in the NCAA tourney. The Cavaliers return everyone except guard Breyana Mason, who led the team in scoring (10.1 ppg) and assists (2.8 per game).
Virginia’s 2017-18 roster consists of Brown; seniors Aliyah Huland El, Lauren Moses and Jae’Lisa Allen; junior MonÃƒÆ’Â© Jones; redshirt sophomore Shakyna Payne; sophomores Dominique Toussaint, Felicia Aiyeotan, Lisa Jablonowski and Willoughby; and freshmen Brianna Tinsley and Amandine Toi.
The Cavaliers won’t have a full complement of players in Costa Rica. Toi, a 5-11 guard from France, has been playing for her country’s U19 national team and won’t arrive in the United States until after the `Hoos return from their trip. Moses, UVA’s second-leading scorer last season, is recovering from a minor injury and will sit out the games in Costa Rica.
Tinsley, who starred at nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School, signed with UVA in November. Toi joined the 2017-18 recruiting class this summer.
“The biggest thing is, she’s a great athlete,” Boyle said of Toi. “She’s long and she’s athletic, so she already fits our defensive concepts. On the offensive side, there’s a little bit more unknown, just because European basketball is a little bit different than here. Offensively she’s more of a slasher, and I would consider her more of a combo guard. But right away, defensively she fits our system.”
Tinsley, a 5-7 point guard, has been in town working out with her new teammates all summer.
“She’s really quiet,” Brown said. “She’s like another Breyana Mason. But she’s come in ready to learn, and she’s definitely improved in the time that she’s been here.”
Brown smiled. “We just gotta get her out of the shy zone.”
Under NCAA rules, a team preparing for a foreign tour may practice 10 times in the summer. That’s in addition to the summer training sessions every Division I team is allowed. The extra practice time, Boyle said, has accelerated Tinsley’s adjustment to the college game.
“She’s been able to push the ball for us a lot,” Boyle said. “I think that’s the biggest thing: that she plays at a really good tempo.”
Also, Boyle said, Tinsley, unlike Mason, is not a reluctant shooter, and that should help create more room around the basket for Aiyeotan, who stands 6-9.
As a freshman, Aiyeotan averaged 4.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 12.5 minutes per game. Even in that limited role, she totaled 54 blocked shots, nearly twice as many as the 6-2 Moses, who was second on the team with 28.
Aiyeotan has put on 10 solid pounds since the end of last season.
“She’s definitely gotten a lot stronger,” Willoughby said. “I think that was probably her biggest thing last year. But then on top of that her hands have gotten better, she’s gotten more physical, just being aggressive and going after the boards. And in terms of keeping the ball up, that’s a point of emphasis for her, so she’s gotten so much better with that.”
The sophomore class may well be the Cavaliers’ most talented group. Willoughby and the 5-9 Toussaint were named to the ACC’s all-freshman team by the league’s head coaches last spring, Jablonowski started nine games in 2016-17, and Aiyeotan has immense potential.
Boyle is excited about the strides she’s seen from all of her returning players.
“They’re all a year older, and they’re a year more mature,” she said. “We’re trying to put more responsibility on them in the summer time. We’re asking for more leadership, more consistency. We want to be a more physical team this year.”
Willoughby said: “We know what we needed to improve on last year. We lost a lot of games just from not finishing, so that’s been a big emphasis for us in the offseason: finishing through contact, being more physical and being the aggressor, versus being hit first and kind of backing up.”
At this time last summer, much of the team was new to UVA, including Aiyeotan and Jablonowski, who were born in Nigeria and Luxembourg, respectively. (Aiyeotan attended high school in the United States.)
“I think one of the biggest differences for me is it’s not as hectic,” said Willoughby, who’s from East Orange, New Jersey. “I know what I’m supposed to be doing. I know where I need to be and everything. You don’t have to worry about figuring out the ropes.
“It’s been much better from that standpoint. Overall as a team, I think we’re in a much better place in terms of conditioning, skill work and getting in the gym and everyone doing what they need to do. Just holding each other accountable. I think we’re at a much higher standard.”
The coaching staff has asked Willoughby, who’s mature beyond her years, to “be more of a leader this year and have more of a voice,” she said.
She’s happy to oblige.
“I think even last year I had a voice,” Willoughby said. “I’m not one to really believe in seniority in the sense that only the upper class should have a voice. Because I think for me it was good to come in as a new observer and point out things that maybe [the older players] hadn’t recognized, being a part of the team and program for so long. I think they valued what I had to say even last year, and I’m just looking to continue that and make my voice heard even more last year.”