By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – When the basketball came to guard Dominique Toussaint on the left wing Sunday, she was 2 for 9 from the floor and Virginia trailed 45-44 with less than two minutes to play.
The 5-9 junior didn’t hesitate.
“Your confidence can never go down,” Toussaint said. “The stats might not show it, but I’m always confident in what I can produce on the court.”
On cue, she connected on a 3-pointer, putting UVA ahead for good against ACC rival Georgia Tech at John Paul Jones Arena. Before the final horn sounded, Toussaint added an assist, two free throws and two of her career-high 10 rebounds to help the Cavaliers secure a 53-45 victory in their final home game of the season.
As she has so often during her UVA career, No. 4 demonstrated a flair for the dramatic Sunday, which seems only fitting for a drama major.
“I might not make it all the time, but I’m clutch,” Toussaint, smiling. “I can say that.”
Toussaint, who’s from Staten Island, N.Y., can veer wildly from good to bad and back on the court, often in the same game. She’s working to become more consistent, which would delight the Cavaliers’ coaches. But they’re realistic.
“On any level, the collegiate level, the pro level, you’re going to have turnovers or inconsistencies,” associate head coach Karleen Thompson said.
“There wouldn’t be jobs for coaches if you didn’t have to coach. The thing that I like about Nicky is that she’s coachable. So she can admit her bad decisions in a game or a situation where she should have done something else and maybe took a quick shot.
“But the good thing about it is she loves to come in and watch film with me. We watch individual film, and she’ll critique herself. She’s a student of the game.”
Toussaint, who was named to the ACC’s All-Freshman team in 2016-17, is a three-year starter for the Wahoos, who are in their first season under head coach Tina Thompson.
After the win over Georgia Tech, Thompson singled out Toussaint and classmate Jocelyn Willoughby, who joined her at the postgame press conference.
“I can’t say enough about these two and what I’ve asked of them,” Thompson said. “They’ve always kind of been in a position of leadership or highlight, but probably not to this magnitude, the amount of minutes that we ask them to play and the fashion in which I ask them [to play]. I ask a lot of them every single day. I’m challenging them and pushing them in a way that sometimes they don’t like, but I’m OK with that, because with challenges and change we grow.”
Toussaint’s 2018-19 statistics speak to her highs and lows. She leads the team in minutes played (921) and assists (88), and she’s second in steals (27). She’s the Cavaliers’ second-leading scorer (11.4 ppg) and averages 4.0 rebounds per game. But her 105 turnovers are by far the most of any player on the team, and she’s shooting only 33.1 percent from the floor and 23.1 percent from 3-point range.
“I don’t know who wouldn’t want to clean those up,” Toussaint said of her areas of weakness. “But this year, with all the mistakes and bad games that I’ve had, I think that they’re learning opportunities for me. When I came in, I was very flashy and I kind of forced the issue, and you can kind of see it in games this year, but I’m trying to get away from that and let the game come to me instead of forcing things, especially when it’s not going well.”
She turned in one of her most memorable performances Jan. 10 at JPJ, where UVA outscored Virginia Tech 28-9 in the fourth quarter to capture a 62-58 victory. Toussaint scored a team-high 19 points and added five rebounds, four steals, two assists and only one turnover.
The win was the Cavaliers’ fifth straight over the Hokies. The rematch is Thursday night at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, where Tech (17-10 overall, 4-10 ACC) hosts UVA (11-16, 5-9) at 7 o’clock.
A win would earn a Commonwealth Clash point for UVA and mark another step forward for a team missing two projected starters: guard Amandine Toi, who suffered a preseason knee injury, and center Felicia Aiyeotan, who for medical reasons has appeared in only seven games. Thompson has only eight players available, none taller than 6-3, but the Cavaliers have won three of their past five games.
“We’ve been on an upward trajectory,” Toussaint said. “As a team we’re finding ways to make up for what we’ve lost so far, and I think that everybody is just putting in all their effort.”
In 2017-18, the Cavaliers advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round. That taste of success has made this a challenging season for Toussaint and the team’s other veterans.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” Toussaint said. “I think it was more frustrating in the beginning of the year, because we still didn’t know we were going to play throughout the rest of the year. Being here now, though, I’m not content with where we are, but I’m proud of how we’ve progressed, comparatively to how we were in the beginning of the year.”
The ACC tournament starts next week in Greensboro, N.C., and “of course we’re going to try to win the whole thing, so we make it into the NCAAs automatically,” Toussaint said. “But if not, I know that the people on this team put in their full effort, and I’m very excited about what’s going to happen next year.”
Toussaint, whose parents are from Dominica, an island nation in the Caribbean, attended middle school at St. John’s Lutheran School on Staten Island. Then she moved to Christ the King Regional High School in Queens, which has a storied girls basketball program whose alumni include Sue Bird and Chamique Holdsclaw.
Her commute was two hours each way and involved ferry and train rides. But Toussaint blossomed as a player and, as a 12th-grader, was named Gatorade state player of the year for New York.
At UVA, she initially considered a major in sociology before choosing drama.
“I think that when you’re taking classes here, you’re going to do better in classes that you enjoy more,” Toussaint said. “And it’s not that I didn’t enjoy sociology. It was just kind of a struggle for me to get through the classes, because they were very long and they were lecture classes. Whereas drama classes are more hands on, more interactive. It’s just better-suited for me.”
She has yet to take part in a production at UVA, but she’ll do so in 2019-20, Toussaint said. For now, she’s enjoying such classes as Acting I and Script Analysis and Performance and/as Theory.
“It’s always interesting,” Toussaint said. “In script analysis class, when we first got in there, the professor asked all the students in the class what they wanted to do with their drama major and such, and many of them said, ‘Oh, I want to act’ or ‘I want to direct.’ I’m more fascinated by the study of drama itself, the art of it.”
She hopes to continue playing basketball after graduating from UVA in 2020, and Toussaint isn’t sure how she’ll eventually use her drama degree. That’s not a pressing concern for her.
“I’m only 20 years old,” she said, smiling. “I don’t feel as much pressure as other people do at this university to be like, ‘I need to know exactly what I’m going,’ because this degree from UVA is going to take me very far, regardless of whether I’m playing basketball or not. So I’m very confident in what I can do after college, and I’m willing to take risks. That’s fine.”
She’s become close with Karleen Thompson, who came to UVA last summer after long coaching career in the WNBA. (Karleen Thompson and Tina Thompson are not related.)
“Her door’s always open, and we basically just talk about everything,” Toussaint said.
Karleen Thompson said: “It’s all about being honest and being transparent, and it allows players to be able to trust you and see who you are off the court. Nicky comes in and visits me, and she puts a smile on my face and I put a smile on her face.”
A former guard at the University of Southern California, Karleen Thompson has a basketball résumé that also includes stints as a head coach, assistant coach and general manager in the WNBA. That gives her tremendous perspective on Toussaint’s development as a player.
“When she’s playing in the flow of the game, Nicky will make shots,” Karleen Thompson said. “When she’s overthinking the game — or maybe not thinking the game – then she’ll take a quick shot. But her whole mindset is to help the team win. It’s not in a selfish way. It’s definitely in a way that she wants to do whatever possible to help the team to a victory.
“When she’s playing within the flow of the game, she usually makes a lot of good decisions. She has great court vision, and she can actually see a play before it actually happens. I would push her to be a point guard in her future. I really encourage her a lot to really develop her game in that aspect, because the first thing you want a point guard to have is that great court vision.”