By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Three Final Four banners hang from the rafters in John Paul Jones Arena, commemorating the heights to which the University of Virginia women’s basketball program soared during Debbie Ryan’s tenure as head coach.

Decades have passed since the Cavaliers were NCAA title contenders, but Amaka Agugua-Hamilton’s stated goal is to help them rejoin the nation’s elite, and she and her staff and her players, with the community’s support, have been rebuilding the program “piece by piece,” as she said Sunday night.

“There’s a lot of history here and a lot of winning that went on here, and we’re just trying to get back to that,” said Agugua-Hamilton, who came to Virginia from Missouri State in the spring of 2022.

Her second UVA team entered its regular-season finale having knocked off three ranked opponents. The Wahoos added to that list Sunday night in unforgettable fashion, upsetting No. 5 Virginia Tech 80-75 in front of 11,975—the largest crowd ever to witness a women’s basketball game in this state.

In the final seconds, chants of “U-V-A! U-V-A!” rang out at JPJ as the sizable turnout of Hokie fans fell silent.

“That was one exciting game,” Agugua-Hamilton said, smiling.

“Both of these teams played their butts off,” Tech head Kenny Brooks said. “Both fan bases came and cheered their butts off. It was a high-level game.”

Virginia ended a five-game losing streak in the series. To do so in that setting, in front of a record crowd, made the feat that much more special for the Hoos.

“It’s just amazing for the sport of women’s basketball,” UVA freshman guard Kymora Johnson said, “and that’s what I came here to do, especially, was to get this place back on the map.”

Next up for the Cavaliers (15-14, 7-11) is the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C. In a first-round game Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., No. 11 seed Virginia will meet No. 14 seed Wake Forest at the Greensboro Coliseum. The winner will advance to face No. 6 seed Florida State in the second round Thursday night. The quarterfinals are Friday, and the Hoos haven’t reached that round since 2017-18, their final season under head coach Joanne Boyle.

UVA heads into postseason having won five of its past seven games. The Hoos have had an up-and-down year, but they’re peaking at the right time.

“I just think all around we’re understanding my system better, understanding me, understanding each other,” Agugua-Hamilton said.

Kymora Johnson (21)

The Hokies won the first of the two Commonwealth Clash games, defeating the Cavaliers 76-63 in Blacksburg on Feb. 1. The rematch was a fiercely contested affair that included 11 lead changes. The Hoos went ahead to stay on forward London Clarkson’s reverse layup with 1:21 to left.

“Very, very proud of our players and our fight today,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “We fought for 40 minutes.”

Clarkson, a graduate student, was one of five Cavaliers recognized after the game in a Senior Night ceremony, along with Camryn Taylor, Sam Brunelle, Kaydan Lawson and Taylor Lauterbach.

“They mean a lot to this program,” Agugua-Hamilton said, “and that’s the legacy that you want to leave, and that’s what we talk about all the time: You’re gonna be forever remembered for turning this program back around.”

Taylor, who missed the game in Blacksburg with an injury, totaled 17 points, seven rebounds and two steals Sunday night.

“We knew today was important,” Taylor said. “I think Senior Day gave us an extra little boost, but just knowing that we’re fighting for something greater than ourselves: fighting for our families, fighting for whatever’s personal going on, fighting for our seniors, fighting for this state, Virginia, so everybody kind of had their own thing … Even though we made mistakes, we made them hard. If we did something wrong, we did it hard and we just kept going.”

UVA overcame a breathtaking performance by Tech senior guard Georgia Amoore, who finished with 39 points, the most ever scored by a player in a women’s game at JPJ. Amoore hit eight 3-pointers, the last of which cut the Cavaliers’ lead to 71-70 with 3:07 remaining.

“She put us on her back,” Brooks said.

In Amoore and 6-foot-6 Elizabeth Kitley, Tech (23-6, 14-4) has two All-Americans, and they combined for 39 of their team’s first 45 points Sunday. The Cavaliers knew Amoore and Kitley would get their points, however, and they focused on limiting the contributions of the Hokies’ other starters.

Those three players were a combined 1 for 13 from the floor. Even so, Amoore almost single-handedly kept the Hokies close. Kitley left the game with an injury at the 6:05 mark of the third quarter, and Amoore scored 23 points the rest of the way.

Obviously, when Liz went out, [Amoore] had a different mindset,” Brooks said, “and she had a different look in her eye and she was carrying us.”

London Clarkson

Brunelle, one of three UVA players from Central Virginia, helped seal the win for her hometown team. She stepped to the line with 13.1 seconds left and coolly made two free throws to stretch the Cavaliers’ lead to 80-75, and that’s how the game ended.

“I was happy for Sam, especially on Senior Day, to have that moment,” Agugua-Hamilton said.

Seniors weren’t the only ones who shined for the Hoos on Sunday night. Sophomore guard Paris Clark contributed 16 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals. And then there was Johnson, a Charlottesville native who starred at nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School.

By now, Johnson’s heroics are no surprise, but she turned in another spectacular performance Sunday night. She finished with 21 points, four boards, eight assists, two steals and no turnovers.

“It was really exciting and really inspiring to play in a game like that,” Johnson said.

The game might have been the last at JPJ for the five seniors, and “I knew I had to do it for them,” Johnson said, “and I knew we wanted to do it for them.”

The Cavaliers turn their attention Monday to preparing for the ACC tournament, but Sunday night was a time for celebrating. After her postgame press conference ended, Agugua-Hamilton received congratulations from Ryan outside the media room.

Ryan, who had a courtside seat Sunday night, is delighted with the direction of the program under Agugua-Hamilton, and the Hall of Fame coach is looking forward to see more progress from the Cavaliers.

So is Agugua-Hamilton. “We have a lot of basketball left to play,” she said.

To receive Jeff White’s articles by email, click the appropriate box in this link to subscribe.