CANTWELL: Five reasons to be optimistic about women’s basketball next season

Cavaliers will rebound from disappointing 2018-2019

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Sophomore guard Khyasia Caldwell's emergence as a scoring option has added another dimension to the Virginia offense. Courtesy Virginia Athletics

The Virginia women’s basketball team struggled throughout their first season under Coach Tina Thompson. The Cavaliers (12-19, 5-11 ACC) were seeded 12th in the ACC Tournament, falling to No. 18 Syracuse 67-57 in the second round.

However, next season’s Virginia squad should fulfill the high expectations that this year’s team, who received votes in the preseason AP poll but ended up with a losing record, did not meet. Here’s why.

1. This year’s team was decimated by injuries and ineligible players.

Virginia was only able to dress seven players in the ACC Tournament. Redshirt freshman guard Amandine Toi, a likely starter this season, missed all of last year with a knee injury and then missed all of this year with an injury to her other knee. Junior center Felicia Aiyeotan, Virginia’s defensive anchor, barely played all year with another knee injury.

In addition to the two injured players, sophomore forward Dani Lawson was not granted a hardship waiver from the NCAA to play immediately after transferring from Purdue, and freshman guard Erica Martinsen was suspended for a violation of team rules and did not travel with the team to the ACC Tournament.

Martinsen, who shot 30.8 percent from three-point range over the course of the season, would have especially been useful against a Syracuse team that went 8-of-19 from three against Virginia.

2. Most of the Virginia team returns.

The only Virginia player graduating this year is senior forward Moné Jones, who started every game for the Cavaliers this year, but whose absence should be lessened by the return of Aiyeotan to the lineup. Lawson will also be able to provide meaningful minutes in the paint next season, and junior forward Shakyna Payne will still be available as a bench option.

Jones also averaged the fewest points per game of any Virginia starter. Junior small forward Jocelyn Willoughby, junior guard Dominique Toussaint, junior forward Lisa Jablonowski and sophomore guard Brianna Tinsley all outscored her and will all return next season.

3. Sophomore guard Khyasia Caldwell has emerged as a scoring threat.

Caldwell started the first two games of the season as point guard in place of Toi and proceeded to score only five points while turning the ball over nine times before getting benched for Tinsley. However, she turned things around down the stretch, averaging 9.5 points per game in her final four regular season appearances, earning another chance in the starting lineup for the ACC Tournament.

In her two ACC Tournament games, Caldwell scored 12 points and 9 points, respectively, continuing to show a willingness to slash to the basket and score, adding another dimension to the Virginia offense.

With Caldwell scoring meaningful points, Thompson has been able to run more lineups with Caldwell, Tinsley and Toussaint –– all of whom can both drive with the ball and get open to shoot off the ball. 

Aiyeotan, who can do the work of two players in the paint, and four-star recruit Carole Miller, a guard who has verbally committed to Virginia for next season, will give Thompson more flexibility to run smaller, faster lineups that can put more points on the board.

4. Junior guard Jocelyn Willoughby has developed into a star.

Willoughby led the Cavaliers in points and rebounds this season, posting 10 double-doubles over the course of the season. She came into her own as the season went along as well, failing to score in double figures only twice in ACC play and recording seven of her double-doubles against conference opponents.

In the ACC Tournament, Willoughby showed off her ability to take over a game as Virginia’s primary scoring option in high-pressure situations. In the first round against Boston College, she went off for a career-high 29 points to keep the Cavaliers from elimination, and against Syracuse she kept the game close with 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the third quarter.

Virginia is going to need clutch scoring performances like this to close out games next season, and Willoughby has shown she can provide them.

5. The growing pains under Thompson seem to have ended in ACC play.

Virginia sputtered out of the gate in non-conference play in their first few games under Thompson, with losses to mid-majors like Saint Louis, Central Michigan and Radford. However, the Cavaliers started to hit their stride once they entered conference play. 

Upsets are rarer in women’s basketball than in the men’s game due to the sheer talent disparity between the top few teams and everyone else. Though the Cavaliers were blown out by top-10 ACC foes Notre Dame, Louisville and N.C. State, these kinds of games are not cause for alarm.

In ACC play, Virginia more importantly lost by two points to No. 22 Florida State and four points to No. 18 Syracuse, came back from a 19-point deficit to beat Virginia Tech and beat Duke for the first time since 2000.

Results like these down the stretch are much more indicative of this team’s ability than early-season games under a new coach figuring how best to use the talent she has at her disposal with a very depleted roster.

With an even more talented team next season, Thompson and the Cavaliers should at least finish better than 12th in the ACC and should expect to be even more competitive in the conference.

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