By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Her team’s medical issues marred Tina Thompson’s first season as head women’s basketball coach at the University of Virginia, and they will be a storyline again in 2019-20.
A diagnosis of Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder, has ended senior center Felicia Aiyeotan’s playing career, and UVA’s top recruit for 2019-20, guard Shemera Williams, is sidelined with an injury.
Even so, Thompson says she likes what she’s seen from a team that will rely heavily on its first-year class, whose members are the 5-8 Williams, 5-9 Dylan Horton, 6-0 Carole Miller, 6-3 Meg Jefferson and 5-10 Kylie Kornegay-Lucas.
Also new, in a sense, are two players who sat out last season: 6-2 Dani Lawson, a transfer from Purdue, and 5-11 Amandine Toi, who was recovering from the second major knee injury of her college career.
UVA, which finished 12-19 in 2018-19, opens the season Tuesday at 7 p.m. against Bucknell at John Paul Jones Arena.
The freshmen have “all been pretty impressive,” Thompson said Friday at JPJ. “They’ve all grown in such a very short period of time. From our first practice to yesterday, there’s a difference in all of them, and they’re excited about being able to play. And the great thing about the way that our team is set up is that they will have the opportunity to play. And it’s going to be trial by error. They’re going to get out there, and they’re going to have to figure it out at game time, when the lights are on.”
The Wahoos’ roster includes no juniors and three seniors: guards Jocelyn Willoughby and Dominique Toussaint and forward Lisa Jablonowski. The 6-0 Willoughby led Virginia in scoring and rebounding last season. She was the first Cavalier to achieve that distinction since guard Monica Wright, who in May joined Thompson’s staff as an assistant coach, in 2010.
“I think the biggest goal is to have a better season this year than we did last year, and to win,” said Willoughby, a preseason All-ACC selection. “That’s the goal every year. And I think on top of that for me, and I guess [Toussaint] as well, is just being leaders for our underclassmen and making sure they understand what it’s going to take to have the season that we need to have.”
On her role as a mentor to the freshmen, Willoughby said, “I think the approach is to be somewhat understanding. When we came in as first-years we were expected to produce as well, and they’re in the same position, But I think it’s also understanding but demanding at the same time, because, yes, there’s a learning curve, but they need to come up to speed quickly in order for us to have the successful season that we want to come. So it’s a little bit of compassion, but tough love at the same time.”
The Cavaliers’ coaches –– Thompson and assistants Karleen Thompson (no relation), Walter Pitts and Wright –– have a good idea what to expect from Willoughby (14.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg in 2018-19), Toussaint (11.1 ppg, 3.4 apg) and Jablonowski (7.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg). There’s much less certainty about Lawson and Toi.
As a Purdue freshman in 2017-18, Lawson played in only five games before she suffered a season-ending knee injury. Toi, who’s from France, injured her left knee on the eve of the 2017-18 season and had reconstructive surgery. About a year later, she suffered the same injury in her right knee.
Toi was cleared this fall for full participation and has “come back really strong,” Tina Thompson said, but “I think she has a lot of nerves. She’s anxious about what she looks like and the expectations, and the conversation that I have with her on a daily basis is just kind of to tackle each day and don’t worry about the future, don’t worry about what everyone is thinking.”
Toi will eventually regain her pre-injury form, Thompson said, but “she has to let her body catch up with her mind, and it’s something that I think, from the beginning of the season till now, she’s done a great job of just kind of managing. But it’s a process. Dine will play for us, she needs to play for us, and I have intentions and expectations of her having a big role on this team, but we’re just going to have to be patient.”
The same is true with Lawson, Thompson said.
“It’s going to take time,” Thompson said. “Our first game out is going to be the first time for them in a really, really long time. So it’s going to be really important for us, as [Willoughby] said, to exhibit a lot of tough love, but also support, in that they know that they can make mistakes, but there is an expectation of what they bring to the team and what they contribute. I think that Dani has come a long way, just in getting in probably the best shape that she’s been in a really long time, and just kind of building confidence and believing in herself and her abilities again.
“She’s going to play a big role on our team, and we need her to be ready really fast.”
In one preseason poll, Virginia was picked to finish 11th in the ACC. Another had the Cavaliers finishing 12th. Those predictions don’t faze UVA’s second-year head coach.
“I think that we have a chance once our kids get comfortable and they make the adjustment to playing and being at this level [and] get a little taste of it, because they’re tough,” Thompson said.
“Initially, that’s the reason why we chose them. Because we knew that when you’re in a renovating kind of circumstance, you need players that have a certain kind of mindset, and that they’re willing to and want to play in those big games when the big lights are on … I have high expectations for this team, and it’s just growth. Each time that we go out, we want to get better and we want to compete at the highest level and to the best of our abilities.”