TOBIN: Coming back into the March Madness conversation

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Regardless of the winning streak, Boyle always believed in her team. 

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

Virginia women’s basketball smelled blood in the water Sunday afternoon in Durham, N.C. Having won eight-consecutive games and coming in on top of the ACC, the Cavaliers wanted to knock off their toughest foe yet in then-No. 16 Duke. 

A win against the Blue Devils would mark the Cavaliers’ first triumph against a ranked team this season. As a team that started off the year in a less-than-ideal manner, Virginia has needed every victory it can get. Beating Duke could be a season-defining victory.

The Cavaliers failed. They walked out of Cameron Indoor Stadium with a 55-48 loss.

“[The game] was competitive and great, but we came up short and it's disappointing,” Virginia Coach Joanne Boyle said. “We're going to keep working and we had a great start to the season and this isn't going to be a setback.”

When analyzing the game, though, the Cavalier faithful should not solely or predominantly look at the final score. On the contrary, they should go back and watch the first four minutes of the game.

A 13-2 run, four assists, three conversions from downtown, five buckets. Virginia exuded confidence in every pass and in every shot. And while a dry spell and six turnovers in the remainder of the first quarter allowed Duke to make it 18-11, in those first four minutes, the Cavaliers looked like a team destined to play in March.

In a column published over a month ago, I wrote, “Due to poor play, Virginia won’t even be in the conversation to make the NCAA Tournament come Selection Sunday in March.” But that was a completely different Virginia team. Sitting at 4-6, that team was averaging 61.2 points per game. Sophomore guards Dominique Toussaint and Jocelyn Willoughby were the only double-digit scorers, and the Cavaliers lacked a spark. 

However, the Virginia women’s basketball team of the past nine games looked like a squad dead set on breaking a seven-year drought of missing March Madness postseason play. With a 12-7 record and 5-1 in conference play, in the past nine games the Cavaliers have averaged a whopping 68.6 points per game — and this includes the meek 48 they put up against Duke. Senior guards Aliyah Huland El and J’Kyra Brown have helped balance out the offensive load and joined Toussaint and Willoughby as double-digit scorers, each averaging 10.2 points per game on the season. 

Most importantly, Virginia has come back into the March Madness conversation. 

For anyone who followed the team last year, this bubble purgatory is all too familiar. Through the first 19 games of last season the Cavaliers were 13-6. Any fan knows what happened next — Virginia went .500 in its last 10 regular season games, fell early in the ACC tournament and failed to make it to the Big Dance in absolutely heartbreaking fashion.

One must look at the context surrounding the team’s record through its first 19 games last season versus this season, though. In the 2016-17 season, Virginia had started off the season phenomenally, going 8-2. However, the team followed up its first 10 games with a subpar 5-4 record over the next nine matches, unceremoniously losing four of six in a three-week stretch heading into the 19-game marker. Basically, that team had started hot, only to lose steam when it really needed to keep winning.

Boyle’s squad this year has been the complete opposite. Instead of starting strong, the Cavaliers started painfully slow, losing three of their first four. 

However, Boyle attributes these losses to a tough conference schedule — something she believed to be a necessary evil of sorts for her team.

“We played a really tough non-conference schedule, which helped prepare us,” Boyle said. “Even though our record wasn’t what we wanted, I thought we got exposed and we got a lot of experience and we had a lot of grind to us.”

Rather than slowing down like last year’s squad, this year’s team has been on fire during its middle stretch. Virginia’s previous winning streak marks the first time the team has won eight-straight since the 2008-09 season — when the Cavaliers went on to both make it to the postseason and to win the first-round match.

Regardless of the winning streak, Boyle always believed in her team. After failing to make it to March Madness last year, she made it very clear that she wanted her team to break the curse this year. She had confidence that her team could do just that, even during a tough opening stretch.

“I never thought that we were out of what our goals were to begin with,” Boyle said following Virginia’s massive 70-41 victory over Clemson earlier this month. “I think if we had played a very poor non-conference schedule that might not have been the same. I just really feel that we challenged ourselves, and for the right reasons, to be in a situation that we are here now.”

The Cavaliers certainly have a tough road ahead if they want to clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Looking ahead, Virginia must face No. 13 Florida State, No. 2 Notre Dame once and No. 3 Louisville twice. However, Boyle’s team has it in them to knock off a couple of these mighty foes. 

Last season, Virginia stunned the world by beating a then-No. 4 Florida State team at home in John Paul Jones Arena. That team played with a fire akin to the tenacity it has had over the past eight games and four minutes. If the Cavaliers can erase the last 36 minutes of play from their brain and continue to rack up wins, don’t be surprised to see them pick up a few major victories down the road and, subsequently, have their name called out during Selection Sunday.

Ben Tobin is an Assistant Managing Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at b.tobin@cavalierdaily.com or on Twitter at @TobinBen.

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