Jan. 8, 2018
CHARLOTTESVILLE — She had a stellar first season for the University of Virginia women’s basketball team, and there was every reason to believe Jocelyn Willoughby would be more productive in 2017-18.
Early in the fall, however, Willoughby suffered a high-ankle sprain that sidelined her for almost all of preseason. She was cleared to play in the Cavaliers’ opener and hasn’t missed a game this season, but Willoughby has been less consistent than expected.
The long layoff “set me back in terms of not being able to [build] chemistry and get the reps with the team,” Willoughby said, “and going from 0 to 100 [mph], that causes other issues of compensation. So not having the conditioning and gradual build-up to the season was hard, but I’m going through it now.”
UVA hosted ACC rival Clemson on Sunday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena, and Willoughby entered the game not having made more than three field goals in a game since Dec. 4. That streak is over. She went 5 of 9 from the floor (2 for 3 from beyond the arc) and scored a team-high 16 points in the Wahoos’ 70-41 victory over the Tigers.
Clemson’s head coach is Audra Smith, a former UVA player and assistant.
The victory was the seventh straight for the `Hoos, who are 4-0 in the ACC for the first time since 1999-2000.
“Today was definitely a better day, and it’s boosted my confidence, just kind of getting back to where I was before,” Willoughby said, “just shooting and being aggressive and just being the offensive player that I know I’m capable of, and continuing on the defensive end.”
A 6-0 wing from East Orange, New Jersey, Willoughby started every game for the Cavaliers last season and was named to the ACC’s All-Freshman team. She was the second-leading scorer (9.8 ppg) and top rebounder (6.2 per game) on a UVA team that narrowly missed the NCAA tournament.
This season, she’s second on the team in scoring, at 10.7 ppg, behind classmate Dominique Toussaint (11.4), first in steals (1.9 per game), and third in rebounding (4.5 per game). Willoughby is shooting 52.2 percent from 3-point range and 80.6 percent from the line, both team highs.
She continues to have her right ankle heavily taped, Willoughby said, and “I’m still kind of favoring it a little bit, but in terms of playing, it’s not hindering me.”
“Somebody said to me after the game today, `You just never know who is going to be your leading scorer, huh?’ ” Virginia head coach Joanne Boyle said. “That’s one of the great things about us.”
Willoughby, also one of the team’s best students, has “put in a lot of work,” Boyle said. “Sometimes for shooters, it is a mental game and you get in a little bit of a slump, and I think she’s really worked hard to get herself to where she’s at.”
A graduate of Newark Academy, Willoughby said the “past few games I’ve kind of been passive and hesitant and not quite looking to be aggressive. Just talking to the coaches, it’s all mental for me, so looking to score, looking to make the right play. I think that was ultimately the change. I put in the work, I get up extra shots every day, but just knowing in the game when to take my shot and look for that, I think that was probably the biggest difference for me.”
Aiyeotan, who stands 6-9, led the Cavaliers with 10 rebounds and also had four blocked shots, two assists and one steal. The double-double was the fifth of the season for Aiyeotan, a native of Nigeria who attended high school in the United States.
In the first 60 seconds Sunday, she grabbed an offensive rebound, blocked a shot and made a layup on which she was fouled. Later in the first quarter, fans at JPJ chuckled at the sight of Clemson’s Alexis Carter, who’s 5-7, being guarded in the paint by Aiyeotan.
A reserve as a freshman, Aiyeotan is now a starter and leads the `Hoos in rebounding and blocked shots. She also averages 7.1 points per game and is shooting 50 percent from the floor.
Aiyeotan did not start playing hoops until she was a teenager, and “I think she hasn’t even scratched the surface [of her potential], to be honest,” Boyle said.
“I want the defense to have to worry about her on every possession, and that’s what we want to get to,” Boyle said.
For Aiyeotan, the keys are “building her confidence and understanding we want to get her a touch every other time down the floor, if possible, whether to shoot it or just make a decision for somebody else,” Boyle said. “On the defensive end, it’s just for her to continue to be a presence, and I think she can even be a greater presence for us.”
Early last month, the Cavaliers played at Rutgers and suffered a loss that left them with a 4-6 record. For a team with hopes of making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010, it was a disappointing start, but Boyle said Sunday that she never lost faith.
“I think if we had played a very poor non-conference schedule that might not have been the [case],” Boyle said. “But I just really feel we challenged ourselves, and for the right reasons, to be in a situation that we’re in here now.”
Willoughby said: “It was not the start to the season that we wanted, but I think we were challenged in so many ways. We played a bunch of teams of different styles, and that would prepare us and help us down the road. It was a challenging non-conference season, but it’s helped us.”
Virginia’s next home game is Jan. 21 against Virginia Tech. Before that Commonwealth Clash contest, UVA will play two road games, at Boston College on Thursday night and Sunday afternoon at No. 17 Duke.
The NCAA tournament remains the Cavaliers’ goal, “but we know each day we have to focus on what’s in front of us in the present in order to get to that big picture,” Willoughby said.
“It’s definitely motivation to look down the road and see, OK, this is where we want to go, and in the present these are the immediate steps that we have to take to get there. We really just focus day in and day out on getting better.”
UVA’s winning streak started Dec. 17 against Ohio at the West Palm Invitational in Florida.
“We’ve gotten a lot of injured people back,” Boyle said, “and I think their rhythm has been really good thus far. I think that there’s been a lot of maturity this year, especially since [the Florida tournament] … I think we’ve made great adjustments at games and I think the girls really follow through on that. One of the biggest things we always talk about is our effort and attention to detail, and I feel like we have been more consistent this year with that.”