By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —Amaka Agugua-Hamilton was an assistant coach on the Michigan State women’s basketball team that in 2014 played a New Year’s Eve game in Bloomington, Ind. By the time the Spartans’ return flight touched down in Michigan, it was 2015.

“We missed the ball dropping,” Agugua-Hamilton recalled with a smile Thursday at John Paul Jones Arena. “We missed everything.”

That won’t be an issue for her University of Virginia team Sunday. The new year will still be a few hours away when the Wahoos’ Atlantic Coast Conference opener ends. In a 6 p.m. game to air on ACC Network, UVA (8-3) meets third-ranked NC State (12-0) at JPJ.

The last day of the year brings the first of many ACC challenges for the Hoos, who are in their second season under Agugua-Hamilton. In The Associated Press’ latest top 25, six ACC teams are ranked: NC State (No. 3), Notre Dame (No. 13), Virginia Tech (No. 14), Louisville (No. 19), Florida State (No. 22), and North Carolina (No. 24).

“To me, the ACC is the best conference in the country,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “You beat up on each other night in and night out.”

Of the Cavaliers’ 18 conference games, nine will be against teams that are currently ranked: two each against NC State, UNC and Virginia Tech, and one apiece against Notre Dame, FSU and Louisville.

Moreover, Virginia will play Duke (8-4) twice. The Blue Devils are coming off a season in which they won 26 games, and they’re “always going to be good,” Agugua-Hamilton said.

The Hoos haven’t played since Dec. 21, when they defeated Fordham 82-56 at JPJ. Five days earlier, Virginia had stumbled against Wofford, which hit a last-second shot to win 71-70 at JPJ.

“Obviously, the Wofford loss was just kind of a huge wake-up call,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “There were some things that were plaguing us through the season, but we were still coming out winning, and it all came to a head in that game. So we had to kind of fix some things internally, just get back to the core of who we are, the character of our program, our culture, things like that.

“I think that definitely was something that shined against Fordham, and there was growth there. So we’re going into conference pretty confident and feeling good about the momentum we have coming off that Fordham game, because it wasn’t necessarily about Fordham or the competition that we were playing. It was about us and how we approached that game and fought through some adversity. I think we’ve really worked on playing together, coming together.”

At this stage last season, Virginia was 11-0. That team had little depth, however, and after the calendar flipped to 2023, injuries crushed the Cavaliers, who finished 15-15 overall.

“We didn’t have a bye for a long period last year,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “I think we went six or seven straight weeks of playing, and we were losing bodies. And so it was just very difficult. We had to be resilient. I think it taught us a lot about resiliency, perseverance, adversity, all that. It was a lot. It was just one [test] after the other. Every team is good, any team can beat you on any given day, and I think it’s going to be even more competitive this year.”

These Hoos have more options at each position than they did last season, and “as long as we can stay healthy, I really think that we can be significantly better than we have been,” Agugua-Hamilton said.

“We definitely have the depth, so that’s great. Next-woman-up mentality. It’s not like if one person is out, then we’re down to six players or anything like that. But as far as trying to maintain consistency, and a little bit of continuity, having people in and out of the lineup kind of throws you off a little bit, especially with your offensive chemistry. So if we could just stay strong and have all of our players healthy and available, then we can get a little bit more consistency with our rotations and expectations and chemistry all around.”

Amaka Agugua-Hamilton (right)

UVA faces a significant challenge Sunday night. NC State has five players averaging at least 10.3 points per game, led by junior guard Aziaha James (16.3). The Wolfpack, who defeated then-No. 2 Connecticut 92-81 on Nov. 12, is one of the 10 remaining unbeaten teams in Division I women’s hoops.

The Cavaliers’ top offensive players are fifth-year senior forward Camryn Taylor (14.2 ppg), freshman guard Kymora Johnson (12.1 ppg) and sophomore guard Paris Clark (10.1 ppg).

After a holiday break during which the players went home—for freshman Edessa Noyan, that meant a quick trip to Sweden—the Hoos reconvened Wednesday for practice at JPJ.

“I like to give them as much time [off] as I can,” Agugua-Hamilton said, “because it’s a good time for them get refreshed and have family time, and Christmas obviously is a very, very special time of year.”

UVA returned eight players from last season, and they know what to expect in ACC play. The newcomers are freshmen Johnson, Noyan and Olivia McGhee and transfers Clark (Arizona), Jillian Brown (Northwestern) and Taylor Lauterbach (Kansas State).

“The transfers came from Power Five schools, so they’ve all seen that kind of schedule,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “They may not know the ACC, but they know what’s coming. And then our first-years, they are elite talents. They’ve gone against some of these players [in high school and AAU ball] we’re about to see, and they’re kind of playing with a chip on their shoulder, like they want to beat some of these freshmen that are doing really well. Our first-years, they’ve played a lot of minutes, so really they’re not true freshmen at this point. They’ve kind of evolved through the season, so I think that they’re ready. They’re ready for the challenge.”

Virginia’s non-conference opponents included Oklahoma, Missouri and reigning NCAA champion LSU, which is 12-1 and ranked No. 7 nationally this week. The Hoos, who defeated Mizzou 87-81 in overtime at JPJ, lost 82-67 to Oklahoma, which was then ranked No. 25, also at JPJ. At the Cayman Islands Classic, UVA pushed LSU for four quarters before falling 76-73.

“We were right there,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “So just knowing what we can do when we’re locked in has given us some confidence.”

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Kymora Johnson