March 18, 2018
COLUMBIA, S.C. — For the University of Virginia women’s basketball team, its first NCAA tournament victory since 2009 extended a turnaround season for a program with a proud tradition.
Now comes a greater challenge for UVA, which ousted seventh-seeded California on Friday night at Colonial Life Arena. To return to a place they once frequented — the Sweet Sixteen — the Cavaliers will have to get past an opponent led by their most illustrious alumna.
At 9 p.m. Sunday, 10th-seeded Virginia (19-13) meets second-seeded South Carolina (27-6). The defending NCAA champion Gamecocks are in their 10th season under head coach Dawn Staley, who as an All-America guard under head coach Debbie Ryan led Virginia to three Final Fours in the early 1990s.
ESPN will televise the game, which features an irresistible storyline that Staley tried to downplay Saturday.
“I’m really over 25 years removed from Virginia,” Staley said. “Since Debbie left, most of the people I had a close relationship [with] aren’t there anymore … It’s another game, and it’s another game that I want to win badly — not because it’s Virginia, but because it’s an opportunity to move on in the NCAA tournament.”
For the Wahoos, in their seventh season under head coach Joanne Boyle, a victory would send them to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2000, when they made their 12th appearance in that round of the tournament. This is Virginia’s first trip to the NCAAs since 2010.
The `Hoos appreciate Staley’s standing in the sport and her ties to the University, but “were not really focused on the outside stories that ESPN kind of likes to paint,” senior guard Aliyah Huland El said. “We’re focused on doing what we need to do to get the win.”
Staley has “been a great ambassador for UVA,” Boyle said Saturday, but “I can’t make it bigger than what it is, because if I do that the team is going to look at it that way. We’re just competing as colleagues and coaches. She’s going to prepare her team as best she can, and we’re going to prepare our team as best we can.”
Against Cal, where Boyle coached before coming to Virginia, her team rallied in the second half to win 68-62. Felicia Aiyeotan, a 6-9 sophomore, made 8 of 11 shots from the floor and finished with 16 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots to lead UVA.
Also scoring in double figures for the `Hoos were sophomore guards Jocelyn Willoughby (13 points) and Dominique Toussaint (10), Huland El (12) and fifth-year senior guard J’Kyra Brown (11). Brown led the Cavaliers with a career-best seven assists.
“We had a good game,” Boyle said, “not one of our better games, but good enough to survive and advance.”
The Gamecocks weren’t dominant, either, in their 63-52 win over No. 15 seed North Carolina A&T in the first round. Still, after seeing “what happened to some of the men’s and women’s teams in the NCAA tournament,” Staley said Saturday, “I’m happy. I’m happy to be alive.”
The UVA-South Carolina winner will face No. 3 seed Florida State or No. 11 seed Buffalo in the Sweet Sixteen next weekend. Perhaps the largest obstacle in the Cavaliers’ way Sunday night will be South Carolina forward A’ja Wilson.
A 6-5 senior, Wilson totaled 19 points, 16 rebounds, five blocks, four steals and two assists (as well as five turnovers) against North Carolina A&T.
“A’ja is an unbelievable player,” Boyle said, “one of the best players in the country, if not the best. It’s going to take all of us. [Aiyeotan] might be the only person on my team that can handle her one-on-one. Other than that it’s going to have to be a team effort.”
Aiyeotan, who averaged only 4.6 points and 3.7 rebounds per game in 2016-17, has blossomed as a sophomore. She’s averaging 7.6 points and 7.0 rebounds and leads the ACC with 67 blocks.
“Fe has grown so much over the last two years,” Boyle said. “When she goes in and she’s confident, she can really change the feel of the game, especially on the defensive end.”
South Carolina is averaging 13,439 fans at home games this season, and Staley expects another large, vocal crowd Sunday night, even with the late start.
“We’re going to make the most of it,” Staley said. “It’s going to be a pajama party, and hopefully we have over 10,000 fans wearing pajamas and enjoying a great college atmosphere.”