By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– After the final horn sounded Sunday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena, Felicia Aiyeotan, Lisa Jablonowski, Dominique Toussaint gathered near midcourt. One by one, each member of Virginia’s fourth-year class took the microphone to express her gratitude: first Aiyeotan, then Jablonowski, then Toussaint and, finally, Willoughby.
“It still hasn’t quite set in that this our last game at JPJ,” Willoughby told the crowd. “This day has been special for so many different reasons.”
In its regular-season finale, UVA lost 75-64 to No. 8 NC State. The season is not over for the Cavaliers, who are seeded No. 9 in next week’s ACC tournament, but Sunday marked the final appearance at JPJ for their four seniors: Willoughby, Jablonowski, Toussaint and Aiyeotan, who also were recognized in a ceremony before the game.
“It was an honor to play here on center court,” Jablonowski, a 6-3 forward from Luxembourg, told the crowd as she fought back tears. The postgame celebration ended with the classmates arm in arm as the UVA band played the Good Old Song.
Tina Thompson, who’s in her second season as the Wahoos’ head coach, said she’ll remember the seniors “for setting a standard for the time that I’ve been a part of this program.”
As sophomores in 2017-18, Willoughby, Jablonowski, Toussaint and Aiyeotan helped Virginia advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years. The Hoos lost to perennial power South Carolina in the second round, but they entered 2018-19 looking to build on the foundation they’d laid.
Little went as hoped in their first year under Thompson, who succeeded Joanne Boyle as head coach in the spring of 2018. Aiyeotan, a 6-9 center from Nigeria, was sidelined early last season with a knee injury. Then, not long after returning to the lineup in January 2019, she was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that prematurely ended her UVA career.
Without Aiyeotan, the Cavaliers finished 12-19 overall and 5-11 in ACC play last season. Virginia (13-16, 8-10) has improved this season while playing the nation’s toughest non-conference schedule, in large part because of the seniors’ contributions.
“I know that they were a great example as far as their effort, hard work, their ability to fight through and push through the tough times, and that first year we had a whole lot of them,” Thompson said. “[What] they did every single day in practice, in classroom, is a great example for our young kids to follow. So now all of [the younger players] have a standard that they can look forward to, and if they are blessed to achieve that level of consistency and hard work, then we are at a great place moving forward.”
Toussaint, a 5-9 guard from Staten Island, N.Y., noted that many Division I recruits who entered college in 2016 later transferred to other schools. She and her classmates have “been through a lot through our four years here,” Toussaint noted, but they stayed the course.
“I think one of the things that we harp on is our commitment to this program, our commitment to UVA,” Toussaint said. “So thinking back on my time here, I really appreciate the experiences that UVa has given me, and I’m really proud of our commitment to this program.”
Willoughby, a 6-0 wing from East Orange, N.J., echoed Toussaint’s comments.
“Looking looking back over the four years, our class has been through so much, and we’ve stuck together, and that’s what I’m really, really proud of,” said Willoughby, the ACC’s leading scorer. “Hopefully the girls underneath us will look to that and just learn to be resilient, because I think we’ve grown and learned so much through these last four years, and these are lessons that we’ll take beyond UVA. So I’m just so appreciative of all the lessons and growth and maturity.”
In a Hollywood script, the Cavaliers’ seniors would have bowed out at JPJ with a victory, but NC State (25-4, 14-4) refused to cooperate. The Wolfpack put on a remarkable shooting display. State went 12 for 12 from 3-point range in the first half and hit its first trey in the third quarter before finally missing. For the game, the Pack was 14 for 22 (63.6 percent) from beyond the arc.
“It was a little deflating at times: ‘OK, the ball went through again,’ ” Willoughby said. “But at the end of the day you know in the game some shots are going to fall, and some shots aren’t.”
Thompson said: “In all my years, I’ve never experienced being a part of a game, whether it was playing or coaching, where a team went 12 for 12 from the 3-point line. And although they shot extremely well from the 3-point line, I thought that we were still in the game. I’m very proud of just our fight and the fact that even though they were hot offensively, we still continued to play and we still continued to be ourselves.”
The ACC tournament starts Wednesday at the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum. Virginia, which has a first-round bye, meets No. 8 Syracuse (15-14, 9-9) at 2 p.m. Thursday, with the winner advancing to meet No. 1 seed Louisville (27-3, 16-2) in the quarterfinals.
This will be the second meeting between UVA and Syracuse this season. In the first, the Cavaliers rolled 58-41 on Feb. 2 at JPJ.
Virginia faced NC State twice during the regular season. The Wolfpack won 80-60 on Jan. 5 in Raleigh, N.C. The rematch was closer, and “how we played from start to finish is what we need to do to make noise in the tournament,” Thompson said Sunday. “The game did not end the way we wanted it to, but I’m OK with where we are going into the tournament and think that we will be just fine. I’m proud of our kids and our effort.”