By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The University of Virginia women’s basketball team includes four seniors, three of whom figure to be in head coach Joanne Boyle’s rotation this season: Lauren Moses, Aliyah Huland El and J’Kyra Brown.
How the Cavaliers fare in 2017-18, however, may hinge as much on their promising sophomore class, which consists of 6-0 Jocelyn Willoughby, 5-9 Dominique Toussaint, 6-9 Felicia Aiyeotan and 6-3 Lisa Jablonowski. All are expected to play key roles for UVA, which opens the season Friday night at No. 7 Mississippi State.
Willoughby and Toussaint joined Boyle for a preseason question-and-answer session Monday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena.
“We have a lot of talent on this team, and obviously the sophomore class, and these two on both sides of me, were a huge contributing factor to our success last year and in building the platform [for more success],” Boyle told reporters. “So they’re going to be a major part moving forward these next three years.”
Willoughby started all 33 games for a team that narrowly missed making the NCAA tournament last season. Toussaint started 30. Jablonowski, who’s from Luxembourg, started nine. Aiyeotan, a native of Nigeria, came off the bench in every game last season, and her role should grow significantly in 2017-18.
“I always say, any time freshmen play a lot of minutes, they’re just so much better as sophomores, juniors and seniors moving forward,” said Boyle, who’s in her seventh year at UVA, where her record is 110-85.
Willoughby (9.8 ppg, team-high 6.2 rpg) and Toussaint (9.5 ppg) were named to the ACC’s all-freshman team in 2016-17. Toussaint will feature prominently for the Wahoos on opening night, but whether Willoughby plays against Mississippi State is uncertain. An ankle injury has hindered her this fall.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to play,” Willoughby said Monday, “but for me it’s more about the long term and making sure that I’m healthy and my ankle will be healthy and be able to sustain the duration of the season.”
Virginia lost only one player from a team that finished 20-13 last season, point guard Breyana Mason, but she averaged 35.2 minutes per game. In Mason’s absence, Toussaint, Brown and freshman Brianna Tinsley, a graduate of nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School, will split the point guard duties.
“I just want to be more consistent,” said Toussaint, who was second on the team with 74 assists last season.
“You don’t really have the excuse that you’re a freshman any more. You know what to expect when you go on the floor, and you have to bring it every game. You have more responsibility to the team, being a second-year. I think that’s the biggest change for me.”
Asked about playing the point, Toussaint said, “I’ve just been working with the coaches. They’ve been guiding me through it, because usually I’m just a combo guard. I come off the wing. It’s just a mental change in knowing that I have to lead on the court. I have to be the connection between the team and the coaches. But I feel like I’m transitioning into the position well, and I have J.B. beside me to help me with that.”
Boyle said Toussaint is stronger and fitter than in 2016-17. Willoughby’s injury has slowed her progress, but she’s emerged as one of the team’s leaders.
“There’s just a maturity [with Toussaint and Willoughby],” Boyle said. “I think they’re both mature in their games to begin with, and I know they just want to improve. I just think they can handle more. Mentally they can grow and physically they can grow. I think they are both starting to want more responsibility, and that’s always a great thing for a coach.”
Aiyeotan is the most intriguing member of the class. She’s added 15 solid pounds since the end of last season and can more easily hold her position on the block. As a freshman, she averaged 4.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 12.5 minutes per game and led the `Hoos with 54 blocked shots. Her average of 1.64 blocks per game ranked third among ACC players.
“I think a lot with Fe last year was just the newness of playing in this type of environment,” Boyle said. “She’s a late bloomer, so she’s not been playing the game that long,” unlike Toussaint and Willoughby.
In early August, the `Hoos spent a week in Costa Rica, where they played three games.
In UVA’s first game, against the University of Ottowa, Aiyeotan totaled 10 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks. In the final game, against the Costa Rica national team, she made 8 of 11 shots from the floor, scored 16 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked three shots in only 16 minutes.
“She’s definitely improved in terms of understanding how to post up, how we want her to post up,” Boyle said. “Obviously, there’s going to be growth for the next three years with her, but she is a presence for us.
“She’s working hard, and she runs the floor … She’s always been a decent rebounder for us. The defensive end of the floor is still her sweet spot. She still blocks shots every day in practice, and I think she’s just getting more comfortable at the offensive end of the floor. For me it’s still about [Aiyeotan] finishing better and being confident and continuing to get stronger, but there’s been a lot of growth in her.”
Jablonowski averaged only 2.4 points per game as a freshman, but her energy and high basketball IQ earned her a spot in the rotation.
“For us she was always that spark that came off the bench, got all the hustle plays, kept balls alive, rebounded the basketball well and played good defense,” Boyle said. “I want her to continue to do that and hopefully be able to give us a little bit more scoring. I’m never going to pigeonhole a player into a box and say, `She can only do this.’ She’s really been working on her shot with [assistant coach Tim Taylor], and I think she’s definitely more comfortable [on offense].
“Is she going to be putting up 10, 12 points a game this year? I don’t know. But I want her growth to be in that area, and I want her to be better in the things that she was really good at, and that’s those things I mentioned: her hustle, her defense and her rebounding and keeping balls alive.”
Virginia suffered an offseason blow when freshman Amandine Toi, a 5-11 guard from France who was expected to compete for a starting job, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee. She’ll miss the season.
“It was really hard on her for a couple days, up to a week,” Boyle said, “because obviously [basketball is a big part of] the reason why she came here. But she’s a great teammate. These guys” — Toussaint and Willoughby — “will vouch for that. She’ll be a great leader for us. She understands that she gets the year back and she’s got five [years] and all those good things, but I think it’s hard for her, like any player, to sit there and watch practice and know that you’re not going to be a part of it. But every team deals with [injuries]. We’re not the only one.”
UVA’s home opener is Sunday at 2 p.m., against Central Connecticut State at JPJ. First, however, comes a date with Mississippi State, which lost to South Carolina in last year’s NCAA title game.
Boyle wanted to beef up the Cavaliers’ non-conference schedule, “and I think this is a great opportunity for a little bit more of a veteran team to go into [a hostile] environment early … We need that kind of exposure. We’re at the point where we need those type of games early to just see where we are. I’m looking forward to it.”
In voting among the ACC’s head coaches last month, Virginia was picked to finish fifth in the conference.
“After our season last year, we’re more mature,” Willoughby said. “We understand what we need to do, and now it’s just a matter of doing what we need to do to get it done.”
Boyle said: “Our goal is to get off of that [NCAA] bubble and not have it be somebody else’s decision if we’re in the tournament or not.”