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Jan. 26, 2018

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the midpoint of its conference schedule, the University of Virginia women’s basketball team is tied for first in the ACC with fourth-ranked Louisville and fifth-ranked Notre Dame.

The Cavaliers (14-7 overall, 7-1 ACC) take pride in their standing, and understandably so. This is their best start in conference play since the 1999-2000 season. Still, head coach Joanne Boyle knows an arduous road lies ahead for her team.

Of UVA’s final eight regular-season games, four are against top-10 opponents: Louisville (twice), Notre Dame and No. 8 Florida State.

“It’s going to be a fight,” Boyle said Thursday night after Virginia defeated North Carolina 82-70 at John Paul Jones Arena.

The Wahoos struggled out of conference early in the season – they were 4-6 after losing Dec. 4 at Rutgers – but have steadily improved over the past six weeks. They won eight straight games before losing 55-48 at then-No. 16 Duke on Jan. 14.

Virginia rebounded from that defeat to beat Virginia Tech 61-52 at JPJ on Sunday. Four nights later, the ‘Hoos never trailed in an emphatic win over the Tar Heels (14-7, 4-4).

Five players scored in double figures for UVA, led by senior guard Aliyah Huland El (19 points). Sophomore guard Dominique Toussaint and sophomore forward Lisa Jablonowski had five assists each on a night when the Cavaliers totaled 18 (on 32 field goals). Another positive for the ‘Hoos: They committed only 11 turnovers, five fewer than their average coming in.

“I don’t know if it was our most complete game,” senior forward Lauren Moses said, “but I feel like as a team we were confident and we were sharing the ball really well, so it worked well for us.”

Felicia Aiyeotan, a 6-9 sophomore, won the opening tip for Virginia, starting a fast break that ended with a layup by Huland El. The Cavaliers led by nine after one quarter, by 15 at halftime, and by 19 after three quarters.

Midway through the final period, UNC cut its deficit to 12, but UVA quickly regained control. Sophomore guard Dominique Toussaint hit a 3-pointer to push the Cavaliers’ lead to 15 and then, after a Carolina miss at the other end, passed to Aiyeotan for a layup that made it 76-59.

The Tar Heels rallied again, but two baskets by Huland El in the final minute secured the victory for Virginia.

“There are still things to clean up, obviously,” Boyle said, “but it’s been a good run for us thus far.”

For the season, four Cavaliers are averaging at least 10 points per game: Toussaint (11.5), Huland El (10.8), sophomore forward Jocelyn Willoughby (10.5) and fifth-year senior guard J’Kyra Brown (10.0). Next, at 7.8 ppg, is Moses. A starter early in the season, she’s now the team’s top frontcourt reserve.

The 6-2 Moses, whose three-point play with 1:44 remaining put the Cavaliers ahead for good against the Hokies on Sunday, contributed 14 points, three steals and a game-high nine rebounds against UNC.

“It’s different, but I’m enjoying it,” Moses said of coming off the bench.

She’s seeing the benefits of her practice sessions with assistant coach La’Keshia Frett Meredith, a former All-America post player at Georgia.

Moses said she’s focusing on “making sure that I’m calm and I’m getting my eyes up and the ball away from the defender. I’ve been working on little things like that with [Frett Meredith], and it’s paying off.”

This is the deepest team Boyle has had in her seven seasons at UVA. Seven Cavaliers played at least 20 minutes each Thursday night. Jablonowski played 16, and junior forward Moné Jones played seven.

“It’s definitely been a help to us this year,” Boyle said. “It’s tough to get great chemistry with nine players, and they have worked really hard to be very unselfish with each other this year.”

Joining Huland El and Moses as double-figure scorers Thursday night were Toussaint (13 points), Brown (11) and freshman point guard Brianna Tinsley (10 points), who also had three assists and no turnovers.

“Like Coach has said time and time again, on any given night it could be anybody’s night,” Moses said. “It makes us harder to guard.”

Of the UVA’s remaining regular-season games, five are on the road, starting Sunday. At 1 p.m., Virginia meets Georgia Tech (13-8, 2-6) in Atlanta.

The key for down the stretch for her team, Boyle said, will “be in the details.”

When the Cavaliers rebound well, play good transition defense, put forth great effort, win 50/50 balls, and communicate well, they’re “in every game,” Boyle said.

“So we’re going to have to do what we’ve been doing and take it up a notch and be consistent in all of those categories. I think there’s a lot of confidence in this team, just knowing that we have the ability to be in and win every game.”

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