By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Eight months ago, Selection Monday brought heartbreak for the University of Virginia women’s basketball team, which was stunned to learn on that March night that it would not advance to the NCAA tournament.
With every player back from that team except point guard Breyana Mason, the Cavaliers entered 2017-18 determined to avoid similar disappointment.
“After our season last year, we’re more mature,” sophomore wing Jocelyn Willoughby said early this month. “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.”
Head coach Joanne 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.”
Five games into the season, the Wahoos have not enjoyed the start they envisioned.
On opening night, on the road against No. 7 Mississippi State, the `Hoos lost 68-53. That outcome was not unexpected — Mississippi State was the NCAA runner-up last season — but after routing Central Connecticut State at John Paul Jones Arena, Virginia then dropped back-to-back games, losing at home to Georgia and on the road to Dayton.
All of which added significance to Virginia’s game against Hampton, whidh defeated North Carolina in its opener. The Cavaliers wanted to avoid dropping to 1-4, and they succeeded Tuesday night, defeating the Pirates 66-62 at JPJ in a non-conference game that was closer than perhaps it needed to be.
“We’ve had a little bit of a rough start, so it’s nice to come out at home and get a win,” said Boyle, who’s in her seventh season at UVA.
Asked if the team’s early-season struggles have surprised her, Willoughby said, “Yes and no. I think we had high expectations coming into the season. We knew we would have a tough schedule, and we thought we could rise to the occasion. And we still have confidence that we can.
“I think the reason I say no is because we haven’t fine-tuned the details and the small things that we need to work on, and we know that when we don’t do those things — like rebounding as we should, or communicating — when we have those breakdowns, you’re not going to get the results that you want. So we’re still looking to grow. We know we want to play our best basketball in February and March and take it game by game and practice by practice.”
Virginia’s next four games are also at JPJ, starting this weekend with the Cavalier Classic. At 2 p.m. Saturday, UVA (2-3) meets Harvard (3-2). At 3:30 p.m. Sunday, in the tournament’s final game, the Cavaliers take on Duquesne (3-2).
Ideally, UVA would come out of the weekend with a 4-3 record. But Boyle also wants to see continued growth from her team, whose rotation includes four sophomores (Willoughby, Dominique Toussaint, Felicia Aiyeotan and Lisa Jablonowski) and freshman Brianna Tinsley.
“I feel like we’ve been really defending people,” Boyle said. “It’s been on the offensive end where we’ve taken bad shots or turned the ball over.”
The Pirates, whose only player taller than 6-1 is 6-2 Mikayla Sayle, outrebounded Virginia 40-32. The Cavaliers, who led by 10 points at halftime, shot 50 percent from the floor for the game, but they turned the ball over eight times in the final two quarters. UVA came in averaging 17 turnovers per game.
“I think we have to continue to be a really good defensive team — our defense is our staple — and I want to continue to grow on the offensive end, which we did tonight, but cut down on the mistakes,” Boyle said. “I think a big thing for us is just cutting down on the mental mistakes that are [hurting] us, and I think that will be a big step in the right direction.”
Willoughby scored a team-high 15 points, on 6-for-9 shooting, and also led the Cavaliers with six rebounds before fouling out with 3:47 remaining. Toussaint, a 5-9 guard, scored 14 points and had a game-high six assists. In her first start of the season, senior guard Aliyah Huland El (10 points) joined Willoughby and Toussaint in double figures.
Toussaint has played some point guard this season, but the coaching staff is grooming the 5-7 Tinsley to take over that role. Tinsley made her second start Tuesday night.
“Because Nikki can score for us so well, it’s hard to always keep her at the point,” Boyle said.
A graduate of nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School, Tinsley was 3 for 5 from the floor against Hampton (1-2), with one rebound, one steal and one blocked shot, but she also committed a game-high five turnovers.
Such inconsistency is not unusual for a freshman point guard, Boyle said. “I think for her it’s just [a matter of] getting some games under her belt.”
With 1:20 left in the second quarter Tuesday night, Virginia led 36-21. But the Cavaliers lapsed, and by the end of the third quarter the Pirates had slashed their deficit to four.
Virginia pushed its lead back to 11 midway through the final quarter, only to see Hampton rally again. The Pirates trailed by only four when Toussaint passed to guard J’Kyra Brown, one of the Cavaliers’ three seniors, in the right corner. Brown put up a 3-pointer that dropped through, making it 66-59 with 33.9 seconds left, and the `Hoos could finally exhale.
A loss might have been calamitous for a team with ambitious postseason goals, but the coaching staff’s mindset heading into the Hampton game, Boyle said, was not “like, `Oh, my gosh, we have to win this.’ I think our approach with the girls is just like, `Every day we have to get better. Every day let’s get better.’ ”
Boyle added: “It’s early. Take one game at a time. Take one practice at a time. I liked the lineup tonight. I liked the rotations tonight. I liked the offense tonight. We’ve got to clean up details.”