CANTWELL: A dynamic trio

Injuries have forced Tinsley, Jones, Jablonowski into larger role

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Junior forward Lisa Jablonowski has played a pivotal role on Virginia's team this year.

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

Virginia women’s basketball struggled in non-conference play this season under new coach Tina Thompson. 

The Cavaliers were defeated by mid-majors such as Radford, Central Michigan, and Saint Louis, as well as some ugly defeats against top 25 teams No. 7 Mississippi State, No. 16 Kentucky, and No. 23 Michigan State. Virginia was the only ACC team to finish their non-conference schedule with a losing record, and still sits in last place in the conference. 

Virginia struggled offensively at times last season under coach Joanne Boyle. That trend continued into this season under Thompson, especially during a midseason four-game stretch against Coppin State, American, Radford and Alabama, in which the Cavaliers failed to score over 60 points in any game. While Virginia beat Coppin State handily, the Cavaliers needed a 13-point comeback to beat American and lost by double digits to both Radford and Alabama.

On top of this, the squad has been hit with major injuries to redshirt freshman point guard Amandine Toi and junior center Felicia Aiyeotan. After missing all of last season with a left knee injury, Toi will be out for this entire season with a right knee injury. Aiyeotan hurt her knee against North Carolina A&T on Nov. 20 and was expected to be sidelined for 6-8 weeks. In addition, sophomore forward Dani Lawson, a transfer from Purdue, was not granted a hardship waiver, rendering her ineligible to play this year.

Without Toi, Aiyeotan, and Lawson, the Cavaliers have spent much of the season with only eight healthy players available.

Sophomore point guard Khyasia Caldwell was initially inserted into the starting five to replace Toi, but struggled with turnovers against Mississippi State and Kentucky and was replaced by  fellow sophomore Brianna Tinsley. Junior forward Shakyna Payne was Thompson’s first choice to replace Aiyeotan, but was soon supplanted by junior forward Lisa Jablonowski.

It has taken time for Tinsley, Jablonowski and senior forward Moné Jones to thrive in their expanded roles, but they have finally come into their own in recent games.

While this team will almost certainly not be returning to the NCAA Tournament this season, the Cavaliers have at least been competitive in their first two ACC games, including narrow losses against No. 22 Florida State and Clemson, in which Tinsley, Jones and Jablonowski have excelled in the starting lineup.

Against Coppin State, American, Radford and Alabama, Tinsley, Jones and Jablonowski only combined for two double-digit scoring performances, as Tinsley scored 11 points against Alabama, while Jablonowski dropped 11 on Radford.

However, their scoring has picked up dramatically since then. In the non-conference finale against Charlotte, Jablonowski scored a career-high 17 points, following that up with 8 and 10 points in the first two conference games. Over the course of those three games, Tinsley scored 12, a career-high 19 and 9 points, and Jones scored 8, a career-high 12 and 10.

In addition, the trio’s struggles in the loss to No. 8 North Carolina State underscored their importance to the Cavalier offense. In that game, Jones scored only 7 points, while Tinsley and Jablonowski failed to score any. 

Aiyeotan has recently returned, and likely will push Jablonowski back to the bench once she returns to full health. Since Jablonowski contributes more on offense than Aiyeotan does, she can be the consistent reserve scorer that the Cavaliers have lacked at times this year. Jablonowski will also be able to provide some much needed versatility to Thompson, playing as a power forward in a big lineup or as a center in a small one.

Though the Cavaliers had a nightmarish first half of the season, partially due to injuries, the absences of Toi and Aiyeotan have provided opportunities for Tinsley, Jones and Jablonowski to develop and hopefully maintain their contributions to keep Virginia competitive in ACC play. 

Colin Cantwell is an incoming Sports editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at cpc3ba@virginia.edu.

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