Cavs enter finale with tournament prospects at stake
Virginia enters final weekend with hopes of winning ACC record
The Virginia women's basketball team looks to wrap up the regular season with a weekend pair as Wake Forest comes to Charlottesville today for the Cavaliers' home finale before the Cavaliers travel to Tallahassee to take on Florida State Sunday.
"What the coaches have harped on down to the wire is do the little things - rebound, tips and steals, play solid defense - if we can just hold onto those things, it fuels us," senior forward Chelsea Shine said.
Virginia's season began as a quest to prove the pundits wrong, then a mission to sustain early-season success, and finally reversed course after a devastating injury to junior guard China Crosby. Crosby's replacement, junior guard Lexie Gerson, brought an injection of energy to the starting lineup to help Virginia establish an identity as a frantic defensive juggernaut. With less than a week until the ACC tournament in Greensboro, NC, the team needs to execute to put history on its side for a chance at an NCAA tournament bid.
"We don't have any six-foot, six-inch kid to throw the ball into every night, and we don't have some of the things that other teams do," Boyle said. "So for us, we embrace rebounding, winning 50-50 balls and taking charges. Any time we do those kinds of things, the momentum changes and I think our team just plays better and more involved. When we leave those things up to chance, we're not a very good team."
Shine has the opportunity to notch a career milestone on Senior Night against the Demon Deacons as she sits just one point shy of 1,000 for her career. Virginia's other senior, guard Ariana Moorer, has been a one-woman wrecking crew in recent weeks, averaging 16 points per game in the team's last four contests to lead Virginia to three key conference wins.
Shine and Moorer could not spark Virginia in its last home game, a deflating 73-56 loss to then-No. 8 Maryland, which the team believes served as a wake-up call which they used in their last game, a more complete effort against Virginia Tech.
"When you have a loss like that it really lights a fire under you because we really understand what we're playing for and how much every game matters," junior center and Cavalier Daily Life columnist Simone Egwu said.
The Cavaliers' rout of the Hokies in Blacksburg Sunday evened their conference record at 7-7, and if the Cavaliers can sweep the weekend set, they will be assured a winning record in conference play - a distinction which has been a good indicator of NCAA tournament selections. Since 2007, all 26 teams which compiled a winning record in ACC play qualified for the tournament.
"Going over .500 in the ACC usually gets you into the tournament, but there's no guarantee and coach Boyle often says, 'Don't leave anything up to chance,'" Shine said. "We're preparing like none of that matters."
The 64-team field is announced Selection Monday March 12 with Virginia hoping to return to the Big Dance after settling for a WNIT Tournament appearance in the final year of former coach Debbie Ryan's 34-year tenure.
It was the Demon Deacons who helped seal the Cavaliers' fate last season. Wake Forest knocked the No. 8 seed Virginia out in the first round of the conference tournament with a 74-68 victory. The loss was just Virginia's fourth all-time to Wake Forest as they have won 61 of 65 match-ups and have posted a 28-1 mark in Charlottesville.
Sunday's trip to Tallahassee will be Virginia's second contest with Florida State. The Cavaliers showed off their defense-oriented approach when the teams met Jan. 29, scoring a 62-52 victory despite being out-shot 46 percent to 36 percent.
Sophomore guard Ataira Franklin made just 3-of-11 field goals but also recorded six steals for Virginia, who scored 28 points off 23 Seminoles turnovers. Franklin has seen her shooting percentages drop from 46 percent from the field and 48 percent from 3-point range last year to 36 and 29 percent, respectively, this season. Nevertheless, she has emerged as a pivotal cog in Virginia's pressure zone defense.
"Some games your shots go down, some games they don't, but you can always defend," Franklin said.
The Cavaliers adopted the identity of their coach by forging themselves as a defensive juggernaut capable of wreaking havoc against any offense in the nation. Virginia held its opponents to less than 60 points 20 times this season and ranks first in the conference with 53.1 points allowed per contest. The team also ranks third nationally in turnover margin at +8.6 per game, and Gerson, Moorer and Franklin each rank among the conference leaders in steals.
The team ranks just ninth out of 12 teams in the ACC in scoring but has executed in other facets of the game. The post presence of Egwu, a consistent and imposing figure down low on defense, has helped shore up the Cavaliers' paint defense. Egwu averages 4.1 rebounds per game and is one of six players to average at least 3.5 rebounds. Virginia is 13-0 when out-rebounding its opponents.
"If we play the way we are capable of playing, we are definitely a tournament team," Boyle said.