— Virginia Women's Basketball (@UVAWomensHoops) January 28, 2024
By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — After practice Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena, they heard from some of the distinguished alumnae who were back on Grounds to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the University of Virginia women’s basketball program.
Less than 24 hours later, the current Cavaliers turned in a performance that made their predecessors beam with pride. Despite the absence of fifth-year senior Camryn Taylor, who’s first on the team in rebounding and second in scoring, UVA rallied to defeat No. 20 North Carolina 81-66 in front of an impassioned crowd of 5,690 at JPJ.
“It was electric in there,” head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton said.
“That was really, really helpful, to hear the crowd get into the game,” guard Kymora Johnson said. “But also we really just wanted to win. It’s hard to beat a team twice”—UNC defeated Virginia in Chapel Hill on Jan. 14—“and so we weren’t gonna let them do that.”
The Wahoos (10-10 overall, 2-7 ACC) started slowly, as they have so often this season. Three minutes into the second quarter, the Tar Heels led 29-16, and the game appeared to be slipping away from Virginia. But a 3-pointer by Johnson kicked off a 14-1 run for the Hoos, and they went ahead to stay on a layup by forward Sam Brunelle that made it 35-34 with 1:20 left in the opening half.
Johnson, a freshman from Charlottesville, scored a game-high 25 points and also had six rebounds, four assists and three steals. Brunelle, a graduate student from Greene County, broke out of a prolonged shooting slump, hitting 5 of 9 attempts from the floor, including 4 of 5 from beyond the arc.
“To have a day like today just brought me a lot of confidence,” Brunelle said. “It wasn’t just the shots going in, but my teammates were uplifting the whole entire game, telling me, ‘Take your shots. We need you to shoot. That’s what you do.’ And I think that’s what we did as a team, honestly. Everybody came out and did their job today.”
Brunelle finished with 14 points—her most since Nov. 25—and pulled down a team-high seven rebounds.
“Yesterday was a really powerful day for our program,” she said, “just having all those alums come to practice. We got to spend a long time with them after practice and take in their advice and hear the things that that got them to be as successful as they were. Wendy Palmer was there, Audra Smith, so many great names were there, and they just gave us some advice.”
Her players, Agugua-Hamilton said, heard from “people [whose names] are hanging in the rafters, and I think it was very impactful and powerful and left us very encouraged. I want to thank our alums for all the love and support they’ve been giving us.”
Representatives of multiple generations of UVA women’s basketball, including former head coach Debbie Ryan, were part of Sunday’s crowd—the largest for a women’s game at JPJ this season—and received a warm greeting when they were recognized at halftime. After returning to their seats, they saw Virginia knock off a top-20 team for the second straight weekend.
The Hoos defeated then-No. 15 Florida State 91-87 last Sunday in Tallahassee. Four nights later, however, they stumbled at home against Pitt, which had been winless in ACC.
Agugua-Hamilton, who’s in her second season at Virginia, called her team’s performance in that game embarrassing, but not because of the opponent. “Every team in this conference is good,” she said. “It was embarrassing because of how we performed and the lack of competitive spirit and things like that. So we talked about that, we watched the film, and our players were embarrassed about how they came out on their home court.”
Coming off the Pitt loss, the Cavaliers had two options, Agugua-Hamilton said. “At that point, you can throw in the towel, you can just be like, ‘Well, this is just too much.’ Or you can rally, really believe in yourself and each other, which is what we chose to do, and come together. We talked a lot about protecting our home court. We hadn’t really played [well at JPJ]. This is the best game we’ve played all year on this court.”
The Hoos outrebounded the taller Tar Heels 35-30. Three of UVA’s guards—Johnson, Jillian Brown and Alexia Smith—combined for 17 rebounds. Smith, playing out of position at point guard for much of the game, scored seven points and had a game-high six assists.
“Lex did a great job,” Agugua-Hamilton said.
Sunday’s result was another reminder that basketball games are decided on the court, not on paper. Not only were the Cavaliers missing the 6-foot-2 Taylor, who was an All-ACC second-team selection last season, they were without backup point guard Yonta Vaughn. (Neither has a season-ending injury, Agugua-Hamilton indicated Sunday, and one or both might be available Thursday night when UVA visits No. 19 Virginia Tech.)
With Taylor on the bench in warmups, Virginia needed strong contributions from its other post players, and they delivered. Brunelle, who’s battled injuries all season, had her best game in months, and graduate student London Clarkson scored 10 points. Off the bench, freshman Edessa Noyan totaled five points, two rebounds and a team-high three blocked shots, and graduate student Taylor Lauterbach grabbed three rebounds.
The Heels (15-6, 7-2) tried a variety of defenses in the second half, but the Cavaliers kept their poise and refused to relinquish the lead.
“With the alums here, with the crowd here, and even with the message that the alums gave us last night, I think it just really sparked us,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “So I’m just happy to see that we’re continuing to fight. We understand the process. There’s going to be ups and downs when you’re building a program, but we’ve got kids that are resilient and competitors at heart, so there’s going to be fight in us.”
When UNC went up 13 early in the second quarter, Agugua-Hamilton called her team to the bench. “In that timeout, everybody was locked in: ‘OK, one possession at a time,’ ” she said. “We just showed a lot of growth and maturity, rather than: ‘OK, here we go again, we’re down.’ “
Thank you Coach Ryan and all of our alumnae who joined us for Alumni Weekend! Your commitment and support for UVA women’s basketball is what makes our program so special 💙🧡 #GoHoos pic.twitter.com/4xUZcfVGaj
— Virginia Women's Basketball (@UVAWomensHoops) January 28, 2024
That there was some magic in the air at JPJ was evident on the first possession of the second half. With the shot clock about to expire, Johnson launched an off-balance 3-pointer from the top of the key. It dropped through the net to push Virginia’s lead to six and further stoked the crowd.
The Cavaliers built their lead to nine in the third quarter, but UNC rallied and trailed by only three heading into the final 10-minute period. It was a two-point game when Brunelle banked in a shot from the right wing for her fourth trey.
“I called ‘bank,’ just so you know,” she said, smiling.
With the outcome settled in the final 90 seconds, the home fans raised a chant—“U-V-A! U-V-A!”—that added an exclamation point to a memorable afternoon.
“The home environment we had is probably the best we’ve had this year,” Brunelle said.
Now comes the first of UVA’s two regular-season games with Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers have shown, with their wins over FSU and UNC, that they’re capable of knocking off talented opponents. But they know the occasional eye-catching victory is not enough.
“We have to keep going and stacking wins,” Johnson said.
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