By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
COLUMBIA, S.C. — For the University of Virginia women’s basketball team, the season began with a road loss to a Southeastern Conference power, Mississippi State. Four months later, it ended with a road loss to another SEC power, defending NCAA champion South Carolina.
This UVA team will be remembered, however, not for those defeats but for the strides it took during this 2017-18 journey.
For the first time since 2010, the Cavaliers advanced to the NCAA tournament, where they upset California in the first round and then stuck with South Carolina for three-plus quarters.
“I’m just incredibly proud to have been the coach of this team this year,” Joanne Boyle said late Sunday night at the end of her seventh season with the Wahoos. “We just fought and believed in each other, and they really laid a foundation for what can be a part of this program moving forward.”
A No. 10 seed, Virginia knocked off seventh-seeded Cal 68-52 on Friday night for the program’s first victory in the NCAA tourney since 2009.
The `Hoos, looking to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2000, faced bigger challenges Sunday night: second-seeded South Carolina and its formidable home-court advantage at Colonial Life Arena. But their resolve never wavered.
“There was no doubt in our minds that we could win that game,” sophomore guard Dominique Toussaint said.
Before a partisan crowd of 10,037, Virginia trailed by only three points early in the fourth quarter after a three-point play by Toussaint. The Gamecocks, behind their magnificent post player, 6-5 senior A’ja Wilson, eventually pulled away, but theirs was a hard-earned victory.
South Carolina (28-6), whose head coach is former UVA great Dawn Staley, led by only three points after one quarter, by five at halftime, and by six after three quarters.
With 6:39 to play, Toussaint was fouled while scoring on a drive that cut the Gamecocks’ lead to five. But she missed the free throw, South Carolina bombed in a 3-pointer at the other end, and suddenly it was 55-47.
Back-to-back baskets by Wilson followed, and the seventh-ranked Gamecocks were headed to the Sweet Sixteen for the sixth time in seven seasons.
“It was bittersweet to end this way,” Virginia senior guard Aliyah Huland El said. “You think back to what happened in the last four years and how you played and the ups and downs, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“Tonight, obviously, we wanted a different outcome, but I’m proud of the way we fought against the defending national champions.”
Toussaint and senior J’Kyra Brown scored 16 points apiece to lead the Cavaliers (19-14), and sophomore Jocelyn Willoughby pulled down a team-high seven rebounds. Foul trouble kept UVA post players Lauren Moses and Felicia Aiyeotan on the bench for long stretches. Even so, little came easily Sunday night for the Gamecocks.
“Virginia is a very good team,” Staley said. “They’ve got some great guards. They’ve got some great post players. They’re young, and they haven’t been in this situation before, so the pressure was all on us. They were playing a lot freer than we were. We were confident that if we just played for 40 minutes that we would get the better of them over that 40-minute period.”
In her final home game, Wilson dominated throughout. “She’s special,” said Staley, who as an All-America guard led Virginia to three Final Fours in the early 1990s.
Wilson, who grew up in nearby Hopkins, totaled 25 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots and two steals in 34 minutes. She left the game to a thunderous ovation with 34 seconds remaining.
“She’s unbelievably talented,” Boyle said. “She can do it all … She is, to me, the best player in the country. We haven’t played against everybody, so I’m just talking about the people I’ve played against, but she’s a talent.”
The Cavaliers marveled at the atmosphere inside South Carolina’s 18,000-seat arena. The crowds at such places as Louisville, Mississippi State and Notre Dame “get loud,” Boyle said, “but there’s a different volume down here. Again, that’s a credit to Dawn and this team and this community.”
Toussaint said: “I feel like that was the loudest crowd we’ve ever played against. Much credit to them. They were the sixth man.”
A strong contingent of players will return for UVA next season, including the 5-9 Toussaint, the 6-0 Willoughby, the 6-9 Aiyeotan, 6-3 sophomore Lisa Jablonowski and 5-7 freshman Brianna Tinsley. But the `Hoos must say good-bye to their four seniors: Huland El, Moses, Brown and Jae’Lisa Allen.
“It hasn’t quite hit me that we won’t be playing with them again, but I’ve just taken so much from each of them,” Willoughby said.
“They’ve all helped us get here, and I’m so proud of them and happy to have played with them, because they’ve helped us get back to a level of success that we want, and it’s our job to continue it moving forward.”
Brown, who began her college career at East Carolina, said the seniors are proud of “laying the foundation for girls to come.”
There were many hurdles to clear along the way. In 2016-17, the `Hoos narrowly missed making the NCAA tournament and had to settle for a third straight trip to the WNIT.
This season, Virginia was 4-6 after losing at Rutgers in early December. The Cavaliers responded with eight straight victories, but they encountered more adversity last month, when they dropped five of their final seven regular-season games.
“We could have just folded at that time,” Boyle said, “but every time [the players] came out to practice, I just felt like they kept refocusing on the team goals. No one ever pointed fingers. It was, `Let’s re-evaluate, let’s get back out there, let’s get this going.’ We found our way through the season and picked up a [win] in the [NCAA] tournament.”
Willoughby said: “We’ve been through it all, and it’s only going to help us.”
In the locker room after the season-ending loss, Boyle said, she reminded her seniors that they “came to Virginia to do exactly what they did this year: get a great education and be part of building a program.”
The breakthrough “took a little bit longer than any of us would have liked,” Boyle acknowledged, but the seniors persevered.
“I think this senior class is so prepared to go into the real world,” Boyle said. “They have a skill set. They can fight through adversity. They can handle disappointment, and I think it’s really important that young people [realize] the grass isn’t always greener [elsewhere]. It’s exciting that they committed to something, stayed through it, and saw it come to completion.”
After the game, the Cavaliers huddled on the court before heading to the locker room. Boyle’s message to her players?
“She was just proud of the way we played, proud of the way we prepared, proud of the way that we were focused,” Huland El said. “For those who are coming back next year, we just laid the foundation.”
Boyle said she’s thrilled “that the 2017-18 team can come back [to UVA] and be celebrated.
“It’s more than just wins and losses. It’s building a program, leaving a legacy, and letting other people take that and run with it.”