By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – At some point in ACC play, first-year head coach Tina Thompson expects to have more options from which to choose. For now, though, 6-9 junior Felicia Aiyeotan remains sidelined, and the University of Virginia women’s basketball team remains short-handed in the frontcourt.
After Aiyeotan injured her right knee in a Nov. 20 win over North Carolina A&T at John Paul Jones Arena, doctors said she’d probably be sidelined for six to eight weeks. She recently hit the six-week mark, but she’s not ready to return to the lineup.
Aiyeotan has played in four games, and she’s averaging 6.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.3 blocked shots. The Cavaliers will be stronger once Aiyeotan returns, but in the meantime Thompson’s focus is elsewhere.
“We have to play a certain way right now, until she’s here,” Thompson said. “So if I start kind of shifting my thought process, it’s not a good place for me.”
For 14 of the ACC’s 15 teams, including Virginia, conference play begins Thursday night. At 7 o’clock, UVA (6-7) hosts Florida State (12-1) at JPJ. The Seminoles are ranked No. 23 in the coaches’ poll.
In the latest Associated Press poll, three ACC teams are ranked in the top 10 – No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 3 Louisville and No. 9 NC State – and Syracuse is No. 14. But Thompson said she hasn’t spent much time studying the rest of the conference.
“We’re focusing on Florida State right now,” she said. “That’s what’s in front of us, and we have to focus on what’s in front of us right now. We don’t have the luxury of looking too far ahead. We have to focus and be completely dialed in to the team that’s in front of us, and that’s in every game, even before the ACC [schedule]. When we lose sight of what’s in front of us and start kind of thinking big picture, then we lose focus.”
The Cavaliers closed the non-conference portion of their schedule with two straight wins. On Dec. 21, they outscored South Florida by 20 points in the second half and won 74-67 at a holiday tournament in Winter Park, Fla. On Sunday, UVA defeated Charlotte 65-61 at JPJ.
Against USF, junior guard Jocelyn Willoughby had 23 points and seven rebounds for Virginia, and senior forward Moné Jones pulled down 10 rebounds. Against Charlotte, junior forward Lisa Jablonowski led the ‘Hoos with a career-high 17 points.
The victories were especially important, Thompson said, “because of the way we won. We had to grind both of those games out, and it’s the reality of who we are. When you have a short roster, and we’re missing size and not having Fe, you’re going to have to do the intangible things in order to win, and in those two games I believe we did that.”
In the preseason, Virginia lost Amandine Toi, a projected starter at guard, to a serious knee injury. With Toi and Aiyeotan out, the Cavaliers have only eight players available: Willoughby, Jones, Jablonowski, junior guard Dominique Toussaint, sophomore guards Brianna Tinsley and Khyasia Caldwell, redshirt junior forward Shakyna Payne, and freshman guard Erica Martinsen. (A ninth, forward Dani Lawson, is sitting out this season after transferring from Purdue to Virginia.)
Under NCAA rules, a Division I women’s team is allowed to have 15 scholarship players.
“The irony in that is that even when we were a full roster, we were still a short roster, compared to everyone else,” Thompson said.
And so “we have to be a grind-it-out team and we have to do intangible things,” Thompson said. “We are a rebounding team. We have a strong emphasis on defense. Our offense is growing. I think we’re a lot better offensively now than we were the first time I went into the gym.”
After seven years as Virginia’s head coach, Joanne Boyle retired at the end of the 2017-18 season. From her final team, which advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round, the Cavaliers lost three of their top six scorers: Aliyah Huland El, J’Kyra Brown and Lauren Moses.
“You just look at the team from last year and you see what we lost from a leadership perspective. It’s a lot,” said Thompson, who came to UVA in April from Texas, where she was associate head coach. “The seniors were a very big part of the personality and the energy of this team.”
The Cavaliers are still forging their identity, Thompson said, “but the effort is there, and we’re making strides to be better and to communicate better, and people are getting more comfortable with the expectation that we have. But paying attention to the details is very important for us, because we just don’t have enough to not be detail-oriented.”