By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — It was her first trip outside the United States, and life in the tropics agreed with University of Virginia guard Yonta Vaughn.

“It was amazing,” Vaughn said of her team’s stay in George Town, the capital of the Cayman Islands.

The Cavaliers weren’t there solely to see the sights and swim in the sparking blue water of the Caribbean Sea. They played two games in Cayman Islands Classic, and Vaughn shined in both. The 5-foot-8 sophomore came off the bench to average 13.5 points and 5.5 assists against Tulane and reigning NCAA champion LSU. She shot 58.3 percent from 3-point range and 52.6 percent overall to earn a spot on the all-tournament team.

“That’s the Yonta Vaughn we saw all summer and preseason,” UVA head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton said Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena. “She’s gotten so much better and so much more confident, so I was just really excited to see her kind of come into her own there.”

The Wahoos (4-2) are back in action Thursday at 5 p.m., when they host Missouri (5-2) in an ACC/SEC Challenge game at JPJ.

Agugua-Hamilton saw much to like from Vaughn’s teammates in the Cayman Islands, too. In its first game at the tournament, Virginia rallied to trounce Tulane 81-59 on Friday. UVA battled seventh-ranked LSU to the end before falling 76-73 on Saturday.

Sophomore Paris Clark (19 points), graduate student Sam Brunelle (15) and Vaughn (13) scored in double figures for the Hoos on Saturday, and “to do it against [LSU] is only going to add to our confidence individually and as a team,” Agugua-Hamilton said.

“Overall, when you look at the game, we competed, we fought, we battled, we wanted it. People came in there with a fire in their eyes. But there was a lot that we could have done better in that game … I think it just gives us a little more confidence about what kind of team we can be down the stretch.”

Slow starts have been an issue this season for the Hoos, and they trailed Tulane 20-5 before seizing control at John Gray Gymnasium. Virginia made a program-record 15 treys and received 49 points from its reserves against the Green Wave.

“We’re working on starting faster,” Vaughn said. “We’ve got to start faster. We know that. Coach Mox stresses that we have to punch first. We can’t get punched. We can’t do that against great teams, especially coming up in the ACC, because it’d be hard to come back from that. We’ll dig ourselves a hole and we’ll have to fight the whole game. So it was pretty tough [early against Tulane], but I’m glad that we got to turn it around and wake up a bit.”

Agugua-Hamilton praised the grit her team showed Friday, and “then I was proud of us against LSU too,” she said. “We were right there, so it kind of hurt [to lose], because we just had a big opportunity in front of us, and there was no doubt in anybody’s mind in our locker room that we were going to come out with a W in that game, and we just fell short.”

Clark, a transfer from Arizona who missed Virginia’s three games with a sprained ankle, scored 15 of her points in the first half against LSU.

“She’s a three-level scorer,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “She can get downhill, she can finish, she can shoot. She has a lot to her offensive bag. But defensively is really where she thrives. And I think the more you see her get in game shape, you’re going to see that more.”

Paris Clark

The LSU game will pay dividends for the Cavaliers, Vaughn said. “I think it’s good to play teams like that early so we can figure out the kinks that we need to work out. It also gives us a chance to see what we have coming up ahead, because teams like {ACC foes] Virginia Tech, Duke, Notre Dame, they play aggressive and have talent just like LSU, so it was good to get out there and see that early. It was fun. The environment was fun.”

The Hoos spent about five days in the Cayman Islands, “so there was obviously a lot of team bonding,” Agugua-Hamilton said, “and the girls got to kind of hang out with each other outside of basketball even more … So that was great. And then just the competitive nature of that tournament [was good]. It was a pretty stacked tournament.”

Virginia’s next opponent is one Agugua-Hamilton knows well. Before coming to UVA in the spring of 2022, she spent three seasons as head coach at Missouri State. The Lady Bears went 3-0 against Missouri under Agugua-Hamilton, winning 79-72 in 2019-20, 72-58 in 2020-21, and 79-51 in 2021-22.

Before heading to the Cayman Islands, Virginia played Oklahoma at JPJ and lost 82-67 on Nov. 19. Missouri bears some similarities to the Sooners, Agugua-Hamilton said. The Tigers are “very versatile. The way that they play is difficult, it’s a difficult style to guard … They try to take advantage of their versatility. They got kids that can shoot, drive and post up, big guards. All their guards besides their point guard are 6-feet, 6-1, 6-2. We just have to really lock into the scouting report, the game plan, and make sure we execute it.”

Virginia began the season with four players sidelined by injuries: Brunelle, Clark, Kaydan Lawson and Mir McLean. All of them except McLean have returned, giving the coaching multiple options.

“Now it’s just about getting back in game shape and everybody just kind of learning [to play with] each other,” Agugua-Hamilton said, “but we’re getting there.”

Nine Cavaliers have started at least one game apiece this season. Fifth-year senior Camryn Taylor (13.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and freshman Kymora Johnson (11.2 ppg, 4.8 apg) are the only players to have started every game for Virginia.

“Before the season started, I said we’ve got about nine or 10 kids that could start, and we’ve seen that,” Agugua-Hamilton told reporters Tuesday. “I just think we have to figure out what group of five kids together gives us our best punch in the beginning. Now, I do foresee it changing, because we have some kids that are just really, really good defenders, and then some kids that are really good on the offensive end, so it just depends on what kind of punch we need to start the game.”

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