By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Their goal is to play in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, and head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton remains confident that day is coming for the Virginia Cavaliers.

Right now, though, “we’re building a program,” Agugua-Hamilton said this week at John Paul Jones Arena, “so just being able to play in a postseason tournament, a good postseason tournament at that, is going to help us get to that next step. It’s going to help us learn how to win in March, play with urgency, play when tomorrow’s not promised.”

In 2022-23, their first season under Agugua-Hamilton, the Wahoos finished 15-15. Ravaged by injuries, the Hoos turned down an invitation to play in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, but they have a deeper roster this year, and the Hoos headed into the inaugural Women’s Basketball Invitation Tournament, which the NCAA administrates, eager to extend their season.

The Cavaliers did so in dominant fashion Thursday night. Against High Point, Virginia rolled to an 81-59 victory in its final game at JPJ. Five players scored in double figures for the Hoos, led by sophomore guard Paris Clark (14 points and game-high six steals).

Other standouts included reserves Alexia Smith, Edessa Noyan and Cady Pauley. Smith, a senior guard who has another season of eligibility remaining, scored a season-high 13 points. Noyan, a freshman forward, pulled down a game-high (and career-best) 10 rebounds, and Pauley, a sophomore guard, added eight points in her 11 minutes and 44 seconds.

“I thought everybody contributed, everybody had energy,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “Everybody did something great when they were out there.”

The game was the Hoos’ first since March 6, when they lost 58-55 to Wake Forest in the ACC tournament’s first round in Greensboro, N.C.  Next up for Virginia is a date with Big East member Villanova in the WBIT’s round of 16.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, the Cavaliers (16-15) will meet the Wildcats (19-12) at Finneran Pavilion in Villanova, Pa., about 20 miles outside of Philadelphia.

“I just love the growth of our program,” Agugua-Hamilton said, “and think we’re going in the right direction.”

Alexia Smith

Virginia entered the WBIT as one of the tournament’s four No. 4 seeds. Villanova is one of the No. 1 seeds. Should the Hoos defeat the Wildcats, they would play at No. 2 seed California or No. 3 seed Saint Joseph’s in the WBIT quarterfinals. The final two rounds of the tournament will be played at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

“We want to continue to win,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “We want to win the whole thing. It [would] be great for our seniors to go out on that note, and it’s gonna be a really, really good experience for our returners just to learn how to win in March.”

Of the 10 players who were available for UVA against High Point (20-12), seven are expected back in 2024-25, including freshmen Kymora Johnson, Olivia McGhee and Noyan.

“Postseason is exciting,” said Johnson, a graduate of nearby St. Anne’s-Belfield School. “Since I got here, I wanted to have some sort of postseason, knowing that this program hasn’t been there in a couple years, trying to bring it back to this place is definitely something that I wanted to achieve this year. So I’m glad we’re here and I hope to keep moving forward.”

The Cavaliers are playing in postseason for the first time since 2017-18. In their final season under head coach Joanne Boyle, the Hoos advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round.

In the four seasons that followed, Virginia compiled a 30-63 record under Tina Thompson, whose tenure at UVA ended in March 2022. There have been twists and turns along the way, but the program has made significant strides under Agugua-Hamilton.

The Hoos defeated four ranked opponents this season, including then-No. 5 Virginia Tech, and interest in the program continues to grow.

In 2021-22, when they finished 5-22, the Cavaliers averaged 1,643 fans at home games. That figure to rose 3,489 in 2022-23 and to 4,652 this season.

“Overall, our numbers are going through the roof,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “I think there’s just so much excitement about us in the community, and everybody’s coming out, everybody’s just seeing the joy that our players play with, and they want to be a part of it. And I love it. I just want to say thank you to our fans, because they have showed up all year and showed out like we asked.”

Amaka Agugua-Hamilton (and son Eze)

UVA’s frontcourt players include Camryn Taylor, Sam Brunelle and Taylor Lauterbach, and all three shined against High Point. Taylor and Brunelle scored 13 and 11 points, respectively, and the 6-foot-7  Lauterbach chipped in four points, five rebounds and two blocked shots in 18-plus minutes off the bench.

Brunelle, who’s from Greene County, transferred to UVA after graduating from Notre Dame in 2022. She knows that any game now could be her last as a Cavalier, but tries to put that out of her mind.

“I just want to go out there and play basketball,” Brunelle said, “and that, for me, has been helpful, because it’s taken some of that pressure off.”

Agugua-Hamilton likes to remind her players that “tomorrow is not promised,” Brunelle said, “and we’re very fortunate to be in this tournament. I’ve been a part of now two postseason tournaments—an NCAA [at Notre Dame] and then the WBIT now—and it’s just extending my career a little bit.”

Brunelle and Johnson, who finished with 10 points and a game-high six assists, joined Agugua-Hamilton at the postgame press conference. Brunelle noted that Johnson has “another three years, but this is kind of the end for me. And so another game is just a blessing.”

This won’t be the Cavaliers’ first trip to Philadelphia this season. On Dec. 3, they won 94-74 at La Salle. The Hoos have little time to prepare for Villanova, but they’re accustomed to quick turnarounds from their ACC schedule.

“This is actually how we play—Thursday, Sundays—so this will be pretty familiar,” Agugua-Hamilton said.

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