TOBIN: Ending a drought

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Freshman center Felicia Aiyeotan leads the ACC with 3.17 blocks per game, even though she comes off the bench for the Cavaliers. 

Megha Karthikeyan | Cavalier Daily

For the past six seasons, the Virginia women’s basketball team has not received a bid to compete in the NCAA Tournament. That could very well change this season based on the Cavaliers’ performance through their first six games.

From the beginning of the season, the Cavaliers have been a team on a mission to return to prominence. With a 103-40 victory over Coppin State in the second game of the season, Virginia made a statement — it is not a team to be taken lightly.

This chip-on-their-shoulder mentality has done wonders for the Cavaliers thus far. Standing at 5-1, the Cavaliers have been putting on a defensive clinic. Allowing opponents an average of just 53 points per game, Virginia has the second-best scoring defense in the ACC. Considering the team let up an average of 61.5 points per game last season, this is a remarkable improvement for the Cavaliers.

Freshman center Felicia Aiyeotan has been an integral part of this defensive stand. At 6-foot-9, the Nigerian native is averaging 3.17 blocks per game — leading the ACC and ranking 11th nationally in this category. Considering the fact that Aiyeotan is coming off the bench and only averaging 14.2 minutes per game, this statistic is even more impressive — she is averaging one block for just over every three minutes of playing time she has.

To reiterate: Aiyeotan — the team’s best defensive player — is coming off the bench.

The way Virginia coach Joanne Boyle runs her team is very similar to how men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett runs his — focusing on tight defense and teamwork to win games.

Sticking to the same starting lineup through the first six games, Boyle has confidence in her starters to work together. Just as point guard London Perrantes is the one scholarship senior on the men’s side, point guard Breyana Mason is for her team.

With the Cavaliers losing three starters at the end of last season, Mason had high expectations to lead the team this year. She has done so seamlessly. Averaging the most points and steals per game on the team, Mason has facilitated the offense and has been a rock on the defense. This is her team to lead, and she is hungry for success.

Her younger teammates are just as driven to end the six-season drought of missing the postseason. Junior forward Lauren Moses, who started every game of last season, is doing her role in the frontcourt — leading the team in points and field goal percentage. Additionally, junior guard Aliyah Huland El, who was first off the bench last season, has been a solid role player in her starting position, averaging 12.3 points per game.

In addition to the returners, two freshmen round out the starting five — guards Dominique Toussaint and Jocelyn Willoughby. Together, the two have transitioned into the team smoothly and average 19 points per game. Between Toussaint, Willoughby, Aiyeotan and freshman forward Lisa Jablonowski, the future is bright for this Cavalier team.

Speaking of Jablonowski, she makes up part of a very deep bench for the Cavaliers. In addition to her and Aiyeotan is junior guard J’Kyra Brown, Virginia’s sixth man who is averaging 20 minutes per game and is leading the team in assists.

The road ahead isn’t an easy one for the Cavaliers. Although they’ve had a strong start to this season, they have many tough conference games ahead. Currently, the ACC has five teams in the top 25, including No. 1 Notre Dame, who the Cavaliers will have to play Jan. 29 in South Bend, Ind.

Yet, this is a Virginia team that has played very well from the start of the season. Although they placed ninth in the conference last season, the Cavaliers finished the season on a high note, making it to the round of 16 of the WNIT. So far this season, it seems as if they have carried on that momentum from last year.

For the past three seasons, Virginia’s record has improved every single year. With an energetic team this season that’s playing with a chip on its shoulder, hopefully the Cavaliers can make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010.

Ben Tobin is a weekly sports columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at bjt5ed@virginia.edu or on Twitter at @TobinBen.

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