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Virginia women to face tough Golden Gophers

Team travels to Minnesota to play in annual ACC/Big Ten Women's Challenge

Virginia travels to Williams Arena Thursday to play Minnesota as part of the annual ACC/Big Ten Women’s Challenge.

The Cavaliers (4-1, 0-0 ACC) have won four games in the challenge since it was created in 2007, losing only once in 2010 to Ohio State. The gritty, physical Golden Gophers (6-1, 0-0 Big Ten) should provide an interesting test for coach Joanne Boyle’s Virginia squad.

“They’re a pressure-up, man-to-man team,” Boyle said. “They play physical. They’re a good rebounding team. Their numbers are similar to ours.”

This season’s adaptation of a man-to-man defense and consistent rebounding helped the Cavaliers win the first four games of the season, including a 73-66 upset of Vanderbilt last weekend in San Juan, Puerto Rico. So far, Virginia is allowing 60.8 points per game and had not yielded more than 70 to any opponent before a 74-73 defeat to Syracuse Saturday.

“It’s been going great,” sophomore forward Sarah Imovbioh said of the new defensive strategy. “I love it. It’s not simple, but it’s something we can buy into immediately.”

The Cavaliers appeared to be riding their defense to a fifth consecutive victory after building a 12-point first-half lead against Syracuse. Turnovers and defensive lapses, however, allowed the Orange to climb back into the game and hit two free throws with 0.4 seconds on the clock to steal the win.

For Boyle, reestablishing Virginia’s defensive moxie and eliminating late-game hiccups represent her primary concerns ahead of Thursday’s trip to Minnesota.

“Our goal is to really make them take tough shots, and get out of their rhythm, and take them out of their system,” Boyle said. “Hopefully they make better decisions. We really do have to own those [late-game] possessions more.”

Despite the misstep in Puerto Rico, the players’ expectations for Thursday’s game remain high. “We still have great momentum, and we’re still excited,” Imovbioh said. “We can’t wait to get out there to play Minnesota.”

If Imovbioh continues her sturdy play after scoring her second 20-point output of the season Saturday, Virginia should stand a fair chance at snatching victory from the Gophers. Imovbioh, currently in her first year with the team, leads the squad with 15.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, replacing injured senior center Simone Egwu. Imovbioh’s impressive .793 shooting average has earned her a ranking of fourth in the ACC and seventh in the NCAA.

“Going to visit my coaches and seeing the film has really helped me a lot,” Imovbioh said. “Just working hard, and trying to fill in Simone’s shoes until she gets back.”

In addition to Imovbioh, juniors forward Ataira Franklin and guard Kelsey Wolfe are averaging in double digits, helping provide Boyle with a balanced offensive attack.

“We’re so much better if we have people who can step up at any time,” Boyle said. “I always say when you have a team that can average three or four people in double figures you’re going to have a really good team. I think that is what we’re starting to grow into.”

Minnesota is returning stateside after winning two-of-three games in last weekend’s Cancun Challenge in Cancun, Mexico. Sophomore guard Rachel Banham should prove a daunting defensive assignment for the Cavalier backcourt, averaging a team-high 19.0 points and 4.1 assists.

With Egwu on the verge of rejoining the team this weekend and the squad brimming with confidence despite the Syracuse loss, Virginia is eager to vanquish the Gophers and add an impressive non-conference win to its NCAA tournament resume.

“We can’t wait to get out there and play basketball,” Imovbioh said.

Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. Thursday.


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