By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – In the women’s practice gym at John Paul Jones Arena, the mood was upbeat Friday morning, and for good reason. About 15 hours earlier, Virginia had rallied from 19 points down in the second half to stun ACC foe Virginia Tech 62-58 in a Commonwealth Clash game at JPJ.
“It was so easy to get up this morning,” senior forward Moné Jones said. “Everyone’s smiling and happy, and we’re just ready for the next game.”
Before leaving on a recruiting trip Friday, first-year head coach Tina Thompson detected a difference in her players.
“Everybody’s smiling a lot more,” Thompson said. “When you lose, you get dejected, especially when there are losses you felt like could have been wins, and I felt like our first two [ACC] games were winnable games.”
Against Florida State, UVA lost its conference opener 63-61 at JPJ on Jan. 3. Three days later, the Wahoos fell 71-65 at Clemson.
“We knew we were right there on the brink of something,” Jones said Friday, “and last night we just had to push through.
“To come from 19 points down to get the win, especially against VT, on our home floor, our first ACC win, it was really big for us.”
At the end of the third quarter, UVA’s prospects looked bleak. Virginia Tech led by 15 points. But the ‘Hoos outscored the Hokies 28-9 in the final period to prevail. Tech fell to 13-3 overall and 0-3 in the ACC. Virginia improved to 7-9, 1-2.
“We fought, we fought, we fought, we fought,” Thompson said during her postgame radio interview. “We didn’t give up. I absolutely love it.”
Junior guard Dominique Toussaint led the Cavaliers with 19 points. Her reaction when the final second ticked off the clock at JPJ?
“I was just ecstatic, honestly,” Toussaint said at the postgame press conference. “When it was tied at 54, I thought, ‘Yeah we have this game.’ I have confidence the whole game, but that’s when I knew for sure that we were going to win this game, because there was no way our team was going to let them come back.”
To say Thompson savored her first taste of the UVA-Tech rivalry – at least the late stages – would be an understatement.
“I’m not going to lie, it was a pretty good feeling,” Thompson said Friday, smiling.
For most of the season, the Cavaliers have been short-handed. They lost Amandine Toi, a projected starter at guard, to a season-ending knee injury in the fall, and center Felicia Aiyeotan hurt her knee in a Nov. 20 win over North Carolina A&T.
The 6-9 Aiyeotan, who led the ACC in blocked shots last season, returned Thursday night after missing 11 games. She played only nine minutes, but even in a limited role Aiyeotan made an impact.
“You have somebody who’s 6-9, who clogs the paints, who gets rebounds,” Jones said, “and it opens up lanes for everybody else. So it was good to have her back on the floor.”
Thompson said: “Fe played limited minutes and she was winded, but it was a lot different when people were driving in there to the basket when she’s there. She just poses a presence that nobody else on our team can [duplicate]. So when she’s gone, it’s missing.”
The victory was Virginia’s fifth straight over Virginia Tech and 23rd in their’ past 25 meetings. UVA overcame a 26-point performance by Tech guard Taylor Emery, who was 5 for 9 from beyond the arc.
“She was pretty incredible today, especially in the first half, but in the second half we got her thinking a little bit,” Thompson said Thursday night. “Once she was thinking and kind of hesitating a little bit, then it kind of messed up her timing and her rhythm.”
The 6-3 Jones, the Cavaliers’ lone senior in terms of athletic eligibility, was only 1 of 7 from the floor Thursday night, but she made 5 of 6 free throws and pulled down a team-high nine rebounds. She also had an assist and a blocked shot.
“Moné in my opinion has been the most consistent player on our team,” Thompson said.
Among the Cavaliers, only Toussaint has played more minutes than Jones this season. Jones “has embraced the reality that she’s going to be tired, and she’s not going to let it beat her, and tonight was an example of that,” Thompson said.
“I’ve been constantly talking to her for the last couple weeks about what she brings. She has an incredible versatility. She just doesn’t use it. I’ve been continuing to push her and push her to take open looks, to be not so much a facilitator and be more aggressive.”
Virginia shot only 32.2 percent from the floor. That’s not usually a formula for success against a quality opponent, but the Cavaliers, who came in averaging 16.8 turnovers per game, did not beat themselves Thursday.
Against Clemson, UVA turned the ball over 24 times. Against Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers matched their season low with nine turnovers, only two of which came in the first second half.
“That was the turning point for us,” Jones said. “We got defensive stops and took care of the ball. That helped us get back in the game.”
In her halftime comments to her players, Thompson recalled Friday, “I said, ‘If we can take care of the ball and we can stop [the Hokies] from doing the things that they are comfortable doing, we will give ourselves a chance. But it’s going to take a lot, so we have to decide whether or not we’re willing to do it,’ and they decided they were.”
Virginia’s next challenge comes Sunday, when eighth-ranked NC State (16-0, 3-0) visits JPJ for a 2 p.m. game.
Thompson expects the confidence her players gained from the comeback against Virginia Tech to help them the rest of the season.
“We’re all human beings, and when you don’t hear positive things, it changes your mindset and your mentality,” Thompson said. “And especially with kids, when they haven’t had enough things go their way and [they’re hearing] they’re doing things wrong all the time, how do you grow from that?
“It’s like you want your plan to grow, but you’re not giving it any water. We need positive stuff. It’s our water.”