By Jeff White (

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Six games into their ACC schedule, their record in league play was 0-6, and they were 8-9 overall. With their season seemingly slipping away, the Virginia Cavaliers could have unraveled, but they refused to do so.

By the end of the regular season, UVA had defeated four ACC opponents ranked in the top 20, including No. 5 Virginia Tech before a record crowd at John Paul Jones Arena, putting itself to position to advance to a postseason tournament.

“They just kept believing, kept fighting, kept learning, kept growing, kept evolving together,” Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, the Wahoos’ second-year head coach, said of her players.

“We fought all season,” senior forward Sam Brunelle said. “There were a lot of moments that we could have folded and we didn’t. We chose to be strong and we chose to always come back.”

The Hoos’ season ended Sunday in the second round of the inaugural Women’s Basketball Invitation Tournament. In the program’s first postseason appearance since 2017-18, Virginia lost 77-53 to Villanova at Finneran Pavilion in the WBIT’s second round.

On the game’s first possession, the Wildcats’ All-Big East guard, Lucy Olsen, hit a 3-pointer with the shot clock about to expire, and that was a sign of things to come. The Hoos never led Sunday. In a game in which they shot only 32.3 percent from the floor, they needed an exceptional defensive effort to stay close, and that eluded them.

“Get a stop! Get a stop!”  Agugua-Hamilton implored her team in the second quarter, but the Wildcats rarely missed and went into halftime leading 36-20.

Virginia cut its deficit to nine early in the third quarter, but Villanova responded with eight straight points. Olsen, a junior, finished with a game-high 30 points.

“She’s a phenomenal talent,”  Agugua-Hamilton said. “We knew that coming in and, and she kind of had her way with us.”

Villanova, which advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in last year’s NCAA Tournament, will host another Philadelphia team, Saint Joseph’s, in the WBIT quarterfinals Thursday night.

Virginia finished the season with a 16-16 record. For Brunelle and 6-foot-2 forward Camryn Taylor, the game marked the end of their college careers, and emotions ran high in the locker room after the game.

“It’s hard,” Brunelle said.

Brunelle, who began her college career at Notre Dame, battled injuries throughout her two seasons at UVA, but her decision to return to the area where she grew up helped revitalize a lagging program.

Taylor led the Cavaliers in rebounding this season and finished second in scoring behind freshman guard Kymora Johnson (15.3 ppg).

“Cam obviously had a heck of a year,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “She’s grown so much on and off the court … Her commitment to this program, her competitiveness, her will to win really helped us take steps in the right direction.

“Same with Sam. Sam played through so much adversity, all the injuries and things like that, but she never wavered. She believed. She defended the culture. She gave us everything she had and helped us win a lot of games. So I think both of them are going to be part of the legacy of turning this program around.”

Amaka Agugua-Hamilton

 When she came to UVA from Missouri State in the spring of 2022, Agugua-Hamilton took over a program that had compiled a 30-63 record in the previous four seasons, and attendance had dipped dramatically at JPJ.

The Hoos, despite being depleted by injuries, finished 15-15 in 2022-23, the program’s first non-losing season since 2017-18, and fans returned to JPJ in force. This season in many ways was a roller-coaster ride for the Cavaliers, but “just being able to play at this point in the season is a blessing,” Agugua-Hamiltonn said Sunday.

“A lot of [teams] have been done for a long time. And we had to fight like heck to get into postseason. We had to finish well and knock off some of the best teams in the country in order to get enough wins to even get us in there.”

The Cavaliers were “in some really big games this year,” Brunelle said. “We lost some bad ones, but we won some big ones. I think that’s something they’re gonna be able to build off for the future in this program, and I can’t wait to see it happen.”

Among the players expected back for UVA next season are guards Johnson, Jillian Brown, Paris Clark, Alexia Smith, Olivia McGhee and Cady Pauley. In the frontcourt, 6-foot-3 Edessa Noyan improved steadily as a freshman this season, but the coaching staff’s top offseason priority will be adding at least one post player from the transfer portal.

The return of Mir McLean should bolster the Hoos’ frontcourt, as should the addition of incoming recruit Breona Hurd, a 6-foot-2 forward.

McLean, a 5-foot-11 forward, was averaging 12.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per game when she suffered a serious knee injury on Jan. 8, 2023. She required reconstructive surgery and has yet to suit up again for Virginia, “but she plays full go in practice,” Agugua-Hamilton said.

“She’s not cleared for games yet, but she looks like her old self. So if she can sustain that for the rest of her eligibility, that would be great. It’s really impressive to see and inspiring to see her come back from the type of injury that she had, and be as athletic and as quick, play the same way, take charges, block shots, make the winning plays.”

Jillian Brown (4)

In many of their losses this season, the Cavaliers struggled in the first quarter, and their slow start against Villanova put them in an unenviable spot on the road in front of a spirited crowd.

“Next year there’ll be a lot of people returning from this team and they’ll be able to know not to do that and how to fix it,” Brunelle said. “So I think that’s good that for the future, and even though I won’t be a part of it, I will be excited to watch them do their thing.”

Johnson, who made the ACC’s All-Freshman team, led Virginia in scoring, assists and steals and was second on the team in rebounding. She started all 32 games this season, and Clark, a transfer from Arizona, started 26.

Smith started 19 games, Brown started 10 and McGhee started eight, respectively. Smith sparkled off the bench Sunday, totaling 10 points, six rebounds and three assists.

“Our future’s really bright with those young guards,” Agugua-Hamilton said.

“It’s very exciting,” said Brown, who transferred from Northwestern to Virginia after the 2022-23 school year, “especially because this was our first year playing together for a lot of us. So just having that experience going into next year, playing with each other but then also being a year older and going through a full offseason together, it’s gonna be really important. I’m excited that we get to return a core group and then obviously we’ll get players to build on that.”

For the Cavaliers who are returning in 2024-25, this will be a pivotal offseason, Brown said. “We know what we want to work on and we also know areas that we’re good at, individual players and as a team. So I think it’s gonna be really important for us to capitalize on how we finished the regular season and just learn to take every game seriously.”

Asked how she’ll remember this season, Agugua-Hamilton cited her team’s resolve. “We had a year filled with so much adversity,” she said, “and I’m just really proud of how we continued to fight … The future’s definitely bright.”

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