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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE– Tina Thompson’s debut as head women’s basketball coach at the University of Virginia did not go as she would have scripted it. Against sixth-ranked Mississippi State, UVA fell behind 11-0, trailed 45-17 at the half, and lost 72-44 at John Paul Jones Arena.
Even so, Thompson exuded positivity in her postgame press conference Friday night. She liked the Cavaliers’ effort in the final two quarters, when they matched MSU’s 27 points, and believes they can build on that. She also praised the crowd of 4,453 that came outp;l for the season opener on a wet, raw night.
“I appreciate Charlottesville showing up for our kids,” Thompson said. “They’re working really, really hard and we are building something. We’re under some renovations a little bit, but we are building. 
“So I hope they continue to come out and support [the team], because it is going to get greater later. It’s going to take a little time, but we are going to get better.”
Under NCAA rules, a Division I women’s basketball team may have 15 scholarship players. The Wahoos have 11, two of whom were in street clothes Friday night. 
Forward Dani Lawson transferred from Purdue to Virginia in July, and she’s waiting to hear if the NCAA will approve her request for immediate eligibility. Guard Amandine Toi, who missed last season while recovering from knee surgery, suffered another major knee injury in practice this week and will miss another season. 
Toi, a redshirt freshman from France, was expected to play significant minutes for the Cavaliers, and her absence was felt Friday night. Sophomore Khyasia Caldwell started at point guard against the Bulldogs (2-0) and had a rough outing, missing 10 of 11 shots from the floor and turning the ball over six times.
“In our two scrimmages, she played very well. She executed,” Thompson said of Caldwell. “But the reality is that we don’t have Dine, and it makes a very big difference in our team, just the energy that she brings and also her ability to put points on the board,” Thompson said. “
“Our team looks different because of that. Even with Dine, we were a little short-manned, and now without her, it’s even more so. But it is what it is. We have what we have, and I still think it’s enough for us to be competitive.”
On a night when the ‘Hoos shoot only 26.2 percent from the floor, their standouts were few. But junior guard Dominique Toussaint and junior center Felicia Aiyeotan turned in strong performances against Mississippi State, the NCAA runner-up in each of the past two seasons.
“I’m proud of these two guys,” said Thompson, with Toussaint and Aiyeotan on either side of her. “I thought that they fought really hard.”
Toussaint matched her career high with 19 points. The 6-9 Aiyeotan pulled down a career-best 16 rebounds and also blocked four shots and scored four points.
With Toi sidelined, Toussaint is “going to be playing a lot of minutes,” Thompson said, “so we’re definitely going to have to continue to work on her conditioning, because I’m expecting a lot of her. But we’re figuring it out. A lot of changes. A lot of different looks. There were some things that we weren’t used to as a group, but this is just the start.”
It’s rare for Aiyeotan not have to a huge height advantage in the post, but the Bulldogs’ center Teaira McCowan stands 6-7. McCowan, the SEC’s preseason player of the year, totaled 12 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and three steals Friday night.
“She’s a great post player,” Aiyeotan said, “and I felt like it was a good opportunity for me to get better, because I definitely will not come across a girl that big that’s 6’7″ every day playing basketball.”
Thompson said: “We have to find a way to get Fe some more looks, but I appreciate her toughness, the way she rebounded the ball, the way she defended. It definitely helps [lay] the foundation of where we’re trying to go moving forward. It’s the expectation that I have of her, and I challenged her and she rose to the occasion.”
In the first half, the Cavaliers had 17 turnovers. MSU’s suffocating man-to-man defense caused many of them, but others resulted from UVA’s poor decision-making and its loss of composure.
“I think it was just lack of execution,” Toussaint said. “We knew what we had to do. We practiced it in practice, but I think our exhaustion and lapses in judgement basically caused those turnovers. They were unforced turnovers, so I think that was just on us.”
In the locker room at halftime, Thompson told her players to calm down.
“In the first half, I think our nerves got the best of us, just a little bit,” Thompson said after the game. “We were just kind of rushing and just not executing in the way that I’m used to or that was comfortable in order for us to get to things that we needed to, in order to put some points on the board. But I’m not discouraged, I believe in this team. Although we’re kind of short-manned a little bit, we have pieces that we can actually [use to] make things happen.”
Many of Virginia’s first-half problems were self-inflicted. “We have to be able to control the things that we can, and in the second half we did that,” Thompson said.
The ‘Hoos won’t play at JPJ again until Nov. 20, when they host North Carolina A&T at 11 a.m. on Field Trip Day. Virginia plays at Kentucky on Thursday night and at Old Dominion on Nov. 18. The Cavaliers’ season opener might have been a mismatch, but it counts as only one loss, Thompson reminded her players afterward.
“I thought their kids played really hard in the second half,” Mississippi State head coach Vic Shaefer said. “They’re going to be fine.”