DOUGHERTY: The birth of a winning culture

Coach Joanne Boyle has revived Virginia women’s basketball with a promising year

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Virginia Coach Joanne Boyle delivered the Cavaliers to the March Madness this season for the first time since 2010.

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

Ten games into the Virginia women’s basketball team’s season, it seemed as though the team’s hope for a statement year was basically faded. An early December loss at Rutgers in which the Cavaliers put up only 43 points left the team sitting at 4-6 with ACC play looming. Even with a pair of talented sophomore guards and a six-foot-nine defensive stalwart, this team didn’t have the look of one that could bring Virginia Coach Joanne Boyle a big year that was long overdue.

Almost four months later, that same team won the first NCAA Tournament game it had played in since 2010.

With their backs against the wall and tournament window closing early in the season, Boyle regrouped her team for a memorable run back to relevancy. The Cavaliers started ACC play 9-1 to insert themselves back into the tournament conversation. Though there were setbacks as the competition grew harder, the team showed impressive growth in a very short time.

The season may not have ended the way they wanted it to, but the loss to South Carolina showcased just how far the Cavaliers had come since that December loss to Rutgers. Playing against the defending national champions on their home court, the Cavaliers came within three points the Gamecocks in the final quarter — a non-trivial sign of a spirited team.

Leading the charge against South Carolina was sophomore guard Dominique Toussaint with 16 points. Last year at this time, Toussaint did not even take the floor in Virginia’s WNIT first round game due to a suspension from the team. The Staten Island, N.Y. native responded to a tough end to last season with a strong 2017-18 campaign that saw her lead the Cavaliers in points per game, showing tremendous maturation along the way.

Though she only scored two points against the Gamecocks, sophomore forward Felicia Aiyeotan also developed into a key contributor for Virginia following a quiet freshman year. Boyle found a way to tap into Aiyeotan’s six-foot-nine frame to fix her struggles from last season. The Lagos, Nigeria native upped her scoring average by almost three points and nearly doubled her rebounds per game while remaining a matchup nightmare on the interior.

Boyle’s ability to develop her two promising sophomores into key pieces leaves little doubt that she has been leading the women’s basketball program on the right track. While the team did not find much success against the elite teams on their ACC schedule, its key string of conference victories show the process of building a winning program is in full swing.

Though this was their first crack at the NCAA Tournament, Virginia’s seniors showed they were not finished laying the groundwork for a winning culture with solid seasons. Senior guard Aliyah Huland El bounced back from a regression last season to average the second most points on the team. Meanwhile, senior forward Lauren Moses showed great leadership poise throughout the year in big moments. Her 14 points led Virginia against Indiana in a crucial non-conference overtime game that helped spark the team’s major run in ACC play. Finally, senior guard J’Kyra Brown continued her tremendous year-by-year growth since her transfer from East Carolina, increasing her scoring average to 9.5 points after averaging five two years ago.

The continued investment from her seniors gave Boyle the means to turn the program around mid-season. Able to feed off their leadership, Boyle inspired her team to not give up on what looked like a lost season and to work hard in getting back to winning ways.

That expectation of winning is the key to a winning culture.

That expectation of winning is what helped lift the Cavaliers in a thrilling 68-62 upset over No. 7-seeded California in the NCAA Tournament this year. Aiyeotan starred off the bench with sixteen points and six rebounds, while four other players joined her in double figures.

It was a true team effort between a group of women that had battled through adversity together all year. And for Boyle — who had fought through that adversity for years in trying to build up the Virginia program — her efforts mounted in the biggest win of her career.

That win over California will stand — unexpectedly — was Boyle’s final victory as Virginia’s head coach. Boyle announced her retirement Tuesday for family reasons, ending her seven-year tenure at the helm of the program. 

Though she will not be the coach that will lead the Cavaliers’ effort to build on this season, it’s safe to say Boyle has left Virginia women’s basketball better than she found it. Her mid-year turnaround will not be forgotten as the next Virginia coach looks to compound the momentum she has brought the program.

Sustaining success will be no easy task for Boyle’s successor, but the winning culture she helped revive will certainly make it easier. 

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