By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — On one of the toughest days of Amaka Agugua-Hamilton’s life, her team helped pull her through.
Agugua-Hamilton, who’s in her second year as head women’s basketball coach at the University of Virginia, learned early Thursday that her father, Lambert Agugua, had passed away unexpectedly. Hours away from UVA’s game in the inaugural ACC/SEC Challenge, Agugua-Hamilton struggled to focus.
“I was a mess pretty much all day,” Agugua-Hamilton, whose mother died in 2008, said Thursday night at John Paul Jones Arena. “It’s just different when it’s unexpected, and you get a call in the middle of the night that you lost a parent.”
She considered missing Virginia’s game with Missouri but, in the end, couldn’t step away.
“I didn’t know how I was going to do it,” Agugua-Hamilton said, “but I knew I wanted to do it, because that’s much I care about this group of people, and I just didn’t want to let them down.”
The night ended on a high note for the Cavaliers, who prevailed 87-81 in overtime in front of 3,701 fans at JPJ. But little came easily for UVA (5-2) against a program Agugua-Hamilton knows well from her time at Missouri State. As has happened often this season, the Wahoos started slowly Thursday night, and they found themselves down 15 points early in the second quarter.
UVA dominated the third quarter, outscoring Mizzou 27-13, and led by six with two minutes to play in the fourth after a 3-pointer by sophomore guard Paris Clark. But Missouri scored 11 points in the final 1:22—nine of them coming on three possessions—to force overtime. Again, the Hoos didn’t panic.
“We know that adversity is something we can get through,” said Camryn Taylor, a fifth-year senior who finished with 26 points, one shy of her career high.
“Obviously, we wanted to win it in regulation,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “We had a blown defensive possession there [on Mizzou’s final possession]. They hit three free throws, but nobody dropped their head. We knew we were gonna win this game. We just had to do it with five more minutes.”
Virginia scored first in overtime, on a drive by senior guard Alexia Smith, and never trailed in the extra period. Graduate student London Clarkson put the Cavaliers ahead to stay with a basket that pushed her scoring total to 17 points, and then freshman guard Kymora Johnson banked in a layup that made it 83-77 with 1:02 remaining. From there, the Hoos made 6 of 8 free throws to keep the Tigers (5-3) at bay.
“I thought it was a great win,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “I’m really proud of this team.”
The Hoos were coming off a strong showing at the Cayman Islands Classic, where they routed Tulane before dropping a close game to reigning NCAA champion LSU. Neither Taylor nor Clarkson played to her potential at the tournament, Agugua-Hamilton said Thursday night, and so she challenged them ahead of the Mizzou game. They responded with stellar performances.
Taylor had nine rebounds to go with her 26 points, and Clarkson pulled down seven rebounds in 31-plus minutes off the bench.
“They really put the team on their back today,” Agugua-Hamilton said.
Taylor and Clarkson had plenty of help. Clark, a transfer from Arizona, scored 14 points, and Smith added 10 points, three assists, two steals and a career-best 13 rebounds. Johnson scored a clutch basket in the final seconds of regulation to put UVA up 75-72 and finished with a game-high seven assists.
“We’re starting to get the group together,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “We just have so many people that can score, so many people that can defend, rebound. And so once we get consistent and everybody’s doing it on the same day, we’re going to be pretty special.”
The Cavaliers played better in the second quarter than they had in the first, and they went into the break down only eight.
“We just kind of emphasized at halftime that we have to get some stops and just play our defensive principles,” Taylor said. “We weren’t really worried about offense. I think our defense helps our offense and kind of gets us pumped.”
In the first half, Agugua-Hamilton said, the Hoos “weren’t really clicking. We weren’t reading the double teams well. We weren’t getting the ball when people were open. We’re still working on our offensive chemistry, and I just know when that clicks we’ll be fine. But in the second half we just really focused on the things that we could control: defense, rebounding, energy, effort, 50/50 balls, things like that. And that was what kind of sparked us.”
Graduate student Sam Brunelle, one of the Cavaliers’ best shooters, suffered an apparent foot injury in the second quarter Thursday night and didn’t return to the game. In overtime, Clarkson took a blow to the head and missed the final 23 seconds. Their teammates persevered without them.
“It’s always next-woman-up mentality for us,” Agugua-Hamilton said.
The Hoos have a deep roster, and that’s been a key to their success this season.
“I think that’s the beauty of our team,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “It wasn’t everybody’s night tonight. But some people that didn’t play well tonight or didn’t play a lot tonight played well last game and played a lot in the Cayman Islands. So I just think it’s just going to be that way. We’ve got to just buy into that and buy into being a deep team and a very talented team … I just love the fact that we have 14 talented players.”
Virginia plays La Salle in a Sunday matinee in Philadelphia and then hosts Rider at JPJ on Wednesday night. After breaking for final exams, the Cavaliers will play two more non-conference games, versus Wofford and Fordham, before opening ACC play against NC State at JPJ on New Year’s Eve.
The Hoos have yet to put a complete game together, but their clash with seventh-ranked LSU spoke to their ability.
“Obviously, it sucks to come out with a loss, but I think we learned a lot from that, and we learned a lot about ourselves,” Taylor said. “We know that we can play with anybody. It doesn’t matter what number is attached to any name. We respect all and fear none.”
Thursday was a trying day not only for Agugua-Hamilton, but for her staffers and players.
“We’re just rallying behind Coach, and I think that’s important,” said Taylor, whose mother died in October 2021. “She needs us just as much as we need her … It sucks, but we’re here. We’re here to support. She knows that, we know that, and I don’t think there’s going to be anything that she can’t get through.”
That support touched Agugua-Hamilton, who was grateful for “the way that my players and staff rallied around me all day [with] flowers, text messages, cards, all that stuff. It just showed a lot of love and it just really shows how much we love each other and how far our culture has come. And I just appreciate them so much, even beyond how we played tonight. This whole day meant a lot to me.”
No one would have blamed Agugua-Hamilton had she chosen not to coach Thursday night, but “I’m happy I did,” she said. “I’m happy I was able to experience all the love I experienced today.”
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