Virginia seeks ACC Tournament success
10th-seeded Cavaliers play Boston College in first round
This Wednesday afternoon, the Virginia women’s basketball team will match up with Boston College at Greensboro Coliseum in the first round of the ACC Tournament. Though a quick look at the bracket might suggest the Cavaliers are supposed to advance — Virginia is seeded 10th to Boston College’s 15th — the Cavaliers have a problem: they are reeling.
“I mean, obviously we’re on a little bit of a slide here,” coach Joanne Boyle said. “But it is Tournament time, and we hope that kind of the season goes out the window a little bit and … we just go in with a new excitement to try and do damage in the Tournament.”
Virginia (13-16, 6-10 ACC) has lost four games in a row, and the last time the Cavaliers won a game away from John Paul Jones Arena — Jan. 30 at Wake Forest’s Joel Coliseum — the team was at the halfway point of its conference season. Virginia is 4-8 on the road and 0-3 on neutral courts on the year, marks that stand in stark contrast to its 9-5 record at home.
Virginia has developed another discouraging pattern recently: slipping in the second half. In losses to Miami and Florida State this past week, the Cavaliers started out promisingly — Virginia led by four at the half against the Hurricanes and by two at the break against the Seminoles — only to lose ground in the final 20 minutes. Virginia shot the ball frigidly in the back end of both contests. Against Miami, the Cavaliers’ field goal percentage dipped from 31.3 percent in the first half to 25 percent in the second. Sunday at Florida State, the drop-off was even more precipitous — from a scorching 60 percent in the opening period to a faltering 28.9 percent afterwards.
Boyle struggled to pinpoint the source of her team’s late-game woes in her pre-tournament teleconference Monday morning. She deflected most of the blame from her players to herself.
“I think there’s a multitude of things, but I guess I would just put it on ownership,” Boyle said. “I need to hold our team a little bit more accountable, you know, for the things that I thought lost us the games for us this year.”
For Boyle, the Cavaliers’ current late-season experience must have a déjà vu feel. Just a year ago, Virginia closed the regular season by losing five of six games, though the lone win — against then-No. 24 Florida State in the regular-season finale — provided a much-needed boost heading into postseason play. Last year’s February collapse mirrored this year’s in another respect: both season-ending skids began with losses to Boston College on the road.
On Feb. 14 of last year, the Eagles downed the favored Cavaliers, 61-49, in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Virginia forward Sarah Imovbioh, now a junior, dominated the glass that day, pulling down a game-high 15 rebounds in only 25 minutes of court time. The Cavaliers, though, shot 22.6 percent in the second half and went 1 of 15 from three-point land for the game.
In this year’s road game against Boston College (12-18, 3-13 ACC), Virginia lost a nine-point first half lead, fell behind by six with 34 seconds to go, and could not come all the way back. The team entered the game playing winning basketball — the Cavaliers had claimed victory in four of five games and defeated then-No. 17 Florida State and then-No. 8 Maryland in back-to-back contests on Jan. 19 and 23 — but after the loss, Virginia seemed to lose momentum. The East Coast was pounded by snow, pushing the Cavaliers’ matchup with Georgia Tech back a day, and when the teams did play, the Yellow Jackets ran up a 95-76 victory.
Boyle said she was unsure if the Cavaliers’ present season would have turned out differently had the team beaten Boston College. For her, the loss was one among several difficult-to-digest defeats.
“You just don’t know,” Boyle said. “I mean, obviously wins and losses are sometimes about matchups, and sometimes it’s about what you just don’t get done, and, you know, we’ve been in a lot of games this year where we held the lead and we just lost it in the second half. And that was actually one of those games.”
Virginia came into the year with the stated goal of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Boyle’s three years as coach. The Cavaliers had a trio of senior captains in the backcourt and Imovbioh to hold down the paint. Redshirt senior guard Lexie Gerson, the only Cavalier to play in March Madness — she made her trip in 2010, the year before Boyle’s arrival — wanted her teammates to have their own taste of the Tournament.
“I want them to all experience what it’s like to go to the Tournament, and I want for our underclassmen to think, when they come in … ‘This is what we do. This is the kind of program that we have here, and this is what we’re going to continue,’” Gerson said in the days before the season-opener against James Madison. “So I think that’s going to start this year.”
Virginia, though, has not rebounded, scored or defended consistently enough to make the Big Dance. The Cavaliers have been outrebounded by a plus-2.4 margin this year, and the team is shooting 40 percent from the field. Virginia is also yielding 73.4 points per game in conference play, the 12th-best mark in the ACC.
“Rebounding I don’t think was our strength this year,” Boyle said. “We had some breakdowns defensively, and I don’t think we always shared the ball and knew how to play with each other on the offensive end for 40 minutes.”
The Cavaliers’ NCAA Tournament hopes now rest on a championship run in Greensboro. If Virginia defeats Boston College Wednesday, the team will play seventh-seeded Georgia Tech Thursday at 6 p.m. A win in that game, and the team gets second-seeded and No. 10 Duke at 6 p.m. in a Friday quarterfinal.
For Boyle, the remainder of Virginia’s season comes down to staying together until the final horn. The Cavaliers, she said, already play with effort.
“We have to stay cohesive down the stretch, and I think that’s kind of been our issue this year,” Boyle said. “I think people want to get it done and we’re probably trying to do it the wrong way.”