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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– In September, she suffered an injury to her right leg, a setback that delayed the start of her basketball career at the University of Virginia.
When guard Shemera Williams made her college debut, on Dec. 5, the Cavaliers were on the road in New Jersey. Then came two games at a tournament in Las Vegas and one in Atlanta.
On the second night of the new year, UVA fans finally got to see the most heralded member of the team’s first-year class in action at John Paul Jones Arena. A 5-8 guard from Milwaukee, Williams started for the first time as a Cavalier. 
She finished with 12 points, five rebounds, two steals and a team-best five assists in a 65-47 loss to ACC rival North Carolina.
Williams played a season-high 35 minutes. Her conditioning continues to improve, she said, “and I’ve been working hard in practice, so I’ve been able to play more and play minutes. So I think I’m getting back healthy. I’ve just got to keep working.”
Much work remains for the Wahoos (5-8 overall, 0-2 ACC), too. After a superb first quarter in which they outscored the Tar Heels 16-11, the Hoos collapsed Thursday night. UNC outscored them 25-6 in the second quarter and 17-12 in the third. UVA rallied in the fourth quarter, but by then the outcome had effectively been settled.
“On my walk [from the locker room] I was trying to find the words I was going to say to open this press conference up, and the only word that I can come up with was ’embarrassed,’ ” second-year head coach Tina Thompson said. “I’m really embarrassed by our effort today. I know my kids, I know how hard we work, and I know how much effort we put in to prepare for these games. In our home opener in the ACC, for us to come out lethargic and with no energy is just unacceptable. I’m apologetic to our fans that are showing up to support us every time we come home. It’s not OK, but we’ll come back and we’ll be different. I can promise that.”
The Tar Heels, whose coaching staff includes former UVA assistant Tim Taylor, hit six 3-pointers in the second quarter to break the game open. At the other end of the court, the Heels switched to a zone defense that befuddled Virginia.
“I think we knew that the game wasn’t going to be won after one quarter, but they started hitting shots,” said UVA’s Lisa Jablonowski, a 6-3 senior who contributed 12 points, four rebounds and three steals.
“They knocked down the 3-point shots, and we got frustrated. We lost our team execution, we put our heads down, we didn’t respond the right way, and it just turned into a downward fall, and it was really hard to get out of it. I just think our response to adversity wasn’t good.”
Thompson said: “We’re a blue-collar team. At no point in the game do we have the luxury of being comfortable and not being exactly who we are. At no point do we have the luxury of diverting from the game plan. We spend hours and hours and hours watching film, because it’s necessary for us to be precise and play teams and defend them in certain ways. And we went out in the second quarter and we did not do that, and we lost that game in the second quarter. They outscored us by 19. We lose this game by 19. That was our demise.”
UNC held the ACC’s top scorer, 6-0 senior Jocelyn Willoughby, to 12 points. She came in averaging 19.3 per game. The Heels’ strategy was no surprise.
“Our reality is that most teams that play us believe that if they stop Jocelyn, then they’re going to have a pretty good chance to beat our team,” Thompson said. “As [one of Willoughby’s teammates], I would find that really disrespectful, if people feel that if they take one player from our team out of the game, then they could beat us. So we have to respond differently as a team. 
“It is not Jocelyn’s lone responsibility to carry this team. She has teammates, and the energy that she brings, the energy and the toughness that Lisa brings, we have to match it. If we could play two-on-two, I would take that duo all day long. But the reality is that we can’t.”
Having a healthy Williams, whom USA Today twice honored as Wisconsin’s top player during her career at Milwaukee Academy of Science, strengthens the Cavaliers.
“It definitely helps us,” Thompson said. “It gives us another player that can actually help us score baskets, but defense is kind of who we are. Of course you have to score points in order to [win], but we have to stop teams. The ACC is a very difficult conference, and it doesn’t get any easier. Today was a winnable game for us, and like I told our kids, we cannot leave wins on the table.”
The schedule gets no easier for Virginia, which visits No. 9 NC State (13-0, 2-0) on Sunday afternoon. UVA is back home next Thursday night against Duke (7-6, 1-1).
“We’re going to have to go back to the drawing board, and we’re going to have to change how we’re approaching things in our effort,” Thompson said. “Are we giving in? Absolutely not, because that is not who we are. But we have to start games and finish games [better].”
Williams, who committed to Marquette in November 2018, re-opened her recruitment after a coaching change at the Big East school. She committed to UVA last May and expected to contribute immediately to the team this season, but her injury altered that timetable.
“It was hard,” Williams said of missing eight games. “I’m a person that wants to help the team, so that was the hardest part for me.”