Imovbioh's 21 points help team crush JMU in season opener
When James Madison junior guard Kirby Burkholder knocked down her seventh three-point shot of the game, Virginia women’s basketball coach Joanne Boyle called for time. In the space of four minutes, the Dukes had slashed the Cavaliers’ 23 point lead to 12, and with much of the second half yet to be played, the outcome of Virginia’s season-opener suddenly hung in the balance.
But out of the timeout, Virginia broke down James Madison’s full-court zone press and found sophomore forward Sarah Imovbioh for two. Time and again in the Virginia women’s basketball team’s 78-57 season-opening win at John Paul Jones Arena, Imovbioh and her teammates came up big.
“I thought it was a great game for us,” Boyle said. “I thought we had just a will to win, had a lot of fight in us. I thought we did a really good job on the boards tonight; it’s been our Achilles’ heel all last year. We challenged the team so that would not be the case this year.”
In a game in which the Cavaliers (1-0, 0-0 ACC) outscored James Madison (0-1, 0-0 CAA) 48-6 in the paint and outrebounded the Dukes 34-29 , Imovbioh’s play stood out. Only starting because of a shin injury to senior center Simone Egwu, Imovbioh scored 21 points on eight-of-nine shooting while grabbing 10 rebounds in 27 minutes of court time. As Imovbioh heated up in the second half of her Cavalier debut — she did not play in games last year because of NCAA eligibility rules — and her teammates repeatedly passed her the ball in position to score.
“That’s the game: you feed the hot hand,” junior guard Ataira Franklin said. “I think that we took this game personal [sic] … We wanted to win for everybody; it wasn’t about one person.”
Five Cavaliers scored eight or more points in the win against James Madison. Franklin, a preseason All-ACC selection, poured in 20 points on 7-11 shooting, and fellow backcourt starters junior Kelsey Wolfe and senior China Crosby added 10 and eight points, respectively. The three guards also combined for 11 assists and 12 steals. Redshirt sophomore forward Sarah Beth Barnette provided 10 points off the bench.
Virginia’s shared scoring load contrasted with James Madison’s reliance on Burkholder. The smooth-shooting guard kept her team in the game in the early goings, sinking five threes in the game’s first 11 minutes en route to a game-high 25 points on 9-of-16 shooting. The rest of the Dukes, however, struggled against Boyle’s trapping 3-2 zone, committing 28 turnovers and failing to penetrate Virginia’s lane.
“We kept losing [Burkholder],” Boyle said. “But again, if she’s going to hit 25 and nobody else is going to be in double figures, then it works.”
Wolfe repeatedly looked for Franklin on the break as Virginia used a 20-2 run late in the first half to turn a 19-19 tie into a 39-21 halftime lead. Barnette, a transfer from Kentucky playing in her first game for the Cavaliers, scored six points during the game-changing stretch. Freshman guard Faith Randolph converted a scoop-shot under the arm of her defender during the run, drawing a foul on the play and sinking the free throw.
Crosby’s long-awaited return to the lineup supplied Virginia with intensity and verve. The guard injured her knee 12 games into last season against, of all teams, James Madison.
“China just brings an energy like Frankie [Ataira Franklin] does,” Boyle said. “She just has a fire. You watch her and fires this team up, and you need that, you need that energy and that fire, and she has it. And so, we welcome it back.”
The win also avenges Virginia’s 68-59 loss to James Madison in the quarterfinals of the 2012 WNIT, which ended the Cavaliers’ season.
“What better way to open the season, you know, [than] playing against the team that you lost to?” Franklin said. “It just gave us more momentum, more hunger going into the game.”
At halftime, the women’s basketball program honored former coach Debbie Ryan and all-time leading scorer Monica Wright. As the team unveiled a banner recognizing Ryan’s accomplishments — she coached Virginia to three consecutive Final Fours from 1990 to 1992 and was the 1990-1991 Naismith Coach of the Year — the home crowd stood in a show of respect and thanks. The fans in John Paul Jones remained on their feet as Wright’s number 22 was retired.
This Virginia team finds itself far from the heights reached by Ryan and Wright. But with newcomers such as Imovbioh demonstrating so much process, the Cavaliers are excited about their prospects for the 2012-3 campaign.
“Yeah, I feel like I am still getting there, still getting better, trying to move it up,” Imovbioh said. “I’m still learning, so I’m just enjoying the process.”