The Virginia women's basketball team saw its season come down to a single play yesterday evening at John Paul Jones Arena, needing a defensive stop to force overtime against Howard. It succeeded and kept a whirlwind campaign marching on to the second round of the WNIT with a 59-56 victory.
The ACC's best defensive unit did not disappoint but gave the home crowd a good scare before keeping its season alive with the biggest defensive stand in a season filled with them.
"It's going to be about rebounding and attention to detail," coach Joanne Boyle said. "I hate to harp on it, but it just keeps coming out of my mouth.
You have to board, you have to defend, you have to get the fifty-fifty balls. You've got to do all those things because everybody's going to compete and it's going to come down to [close games]."
Virginia (23-10) did just enough of the dirty work on the final possession of regulation to escape. Junior guard Cheyenne Curley-Payne split a pair of Virginia defenders on the perimeter and drove to the hole but came up against a triple team from the base of the zone, causing her to force up an errant shot.
With less than five seconds remaining in regulation, the drama was just beginning. Junior forward Nicole Deterville corralled the rebound, but all five Cavalier defenders immediately swarmed her, abandoning any semblance of an ordered zone scheme for a free-for-all under the basket. Deterville's shot rolled off the rim but junior guard Tamoria Holmes scooped it up, and the Bison could not come away with the potential game-winning basket amidst the mayhem.
Virginia conceded 22 offensive rebounds overall, leading to 17 points for Howard (24-9).
"Our Achilles' heel all year has been rebounding, so whether we're coming out flat or energized, that piece of the puzzle we have to fix," Boyle said. "I think when we're not giving teams second and third looks at the basket, you become more energized. It's deflating to have a team get three or four offensive rebounds on crucial possessions."
In overtime, Howard opened the scoring with a three-pointer by senior guard Zykia Brown, but Virginia grabbed control from there with a 7-0 run.
Junior forward Telia McCall made a pretty post move, junior guard Lexie Gerson dropped in an open lay-up and senior guard Ariana Moorer converted on three-of-four free throws to give the Cavaliers a 57-53 lead with 1 minute 24 seconds remaining.
Holmes put one final twist on a bizarre night, burying an uncontested 30-foot three-pointer from the right wing to bring her team within one on her fourth trey of the night. Holmes finished with a team-high 17 points on just 6-of-31 shooting, including a horrid 4-of-19 from beyond the arc.
Gerson made a pair of free throws with seven seconds left, and Holmes' final three-point attempt as time expired did not reach the basket, enabling the Cavaliers to escape with enough clutch stops down the stretch to secure a second-round WNIT matchup against Richmond.
"I think at this point, we're kind of just playing for ourselves," sophomore guard Ataira Franklin said. "We were obviously disappointed, and like coach said, shocked about the decision [not to be selected for the NCAA Tournament], but we're trying not to look at it as a setback. A lot of teams don't get the opportunity to play in postseason, so we need to capitalize on this situation and make the best of it."
In the first half, the Cavaliers came out flat. Howard shot 21 percent from the field in the opening period and missed 15-of-17 three-point attempts, scoring a dismal 16 points. But the Bison were able to keep pace as Virginia put forth one of its worst offensive halves of the season, scoring just 21 points on 28 percent shooting. The teams only managed 14-of-58 first-half field goal attempts, racking up 15 turnovers and just six assists.
"We were trying to push the tempo and get transition [baskets]," Gerson said. "As guards, we were trying to just get rebounds and go because then we wouldn't have to set up against their defense, and [we could] get some easy buckets." Gerson scored a game-high 18 points.
In crunch time, both teams exhibited a newfound sharpness in offensive execution. Virginia clung to a three-point lead with less than six minutes to play when a long ball by junior forward Kara Smith evened the score at 42-all. Senior forward Chelsea Shine responded with a jumper from the free throw line for the Cavaliers, but Curley-Payne hit another three-ball moments later to make it 45-45. Franklin and Holmes then traded threes before both defenses buckled down to send the game into the decisive overtime period.