The Virginia women’s basketball team opens its 2014-15 campaign this Friday night at John Paul Jones Arena against Ohio State, looking to improve on last season's 14-17 overall and 6-10 ACC record. The season was the first-ever losing effort in coach Joanne Boyle's 12 years at the collegiate level — none of her teams had ever finished fewer than two games above .500.
Replacing long-time head coach Debbie Ryan in 2011, Boyle brought the Cavaliers to the quarterfinals of the WNIT in her first season. Since then, the Cavaliers have failed to qualify for any postseason tournament besides the ACC Tournament.
In last year’s ACC Tournament, the Cavaliers fell against Georgia Tech in a 77-76 second-round matchup. In a game which came down to the wire, Virginia allowed the Yellow Jackets to shoot 47.7 percent from the field. On the season, the Cavaliers allowed teams to shoot 43.8 percent — last in the ACC in field goal percentage defense.
As a result, Boyle, in her fourth year as Virginia’s head coach, has decided to change the defense from a 1-2-2 zone to a pack-line man-to-man defense, inspired by the successes of the Virginia men’s basketball team.
“I just wanted us as a program starting with a lot of youth to have a lot of accountability, and it’s obviously easier to do it man-to-man,” Boyle said. “I sat down with Tony and his staff in the spring and they spent a lot of time [discussing the pack-line]. By no means have we perfected it. We have some shortcomings, and we don't have all the length that we need, but I feel like the girls are working hard and have really bought into it."
Despite the Cavaliers' disappointing season, the team had several bright spots — including an upset against No. 6 Maryland at John Paul Jones arena, where the Cavaliers were 10-9 on the season. Then-senior guard Lexie Gerson was named to the ACC All-Defensive team after leading the team in steals with 82 on the year, ranking second in the conference and 22nd in the country. She finished her career ranked fifth on the Cavaliers’ all-time steals list.
Junior guard Faith Randolph also received ACC honors last season, having been named the ACC Sixth Player of the Year after leading all non-starters in the ACC in points. Randolph was third on the team in scoring, behind then-junior center Sarah Imovbioh and then-senior guard Ataira Franklin, who also led the team in blocks. Then-senior guard Kelsey Wolfe topped the team in assists with 88, with Franklin trailing right behind her at 85.
Gerson, Franklin and Wolfe have since graduated — leaving Randolph as one of only four upperclassmen on the team and finally giving her the chance to start. But Randolph said she does not see much difference between her role as a bench player and as a starter.
“Every year a player always gets a new role,” Randolph said. “I don’t think much has changed just because I’m starting. I’m still going to bring energy, encourage my teammates and just play hard — offensively and defensively.”
Imovbioh, last year’s team leader in rebounds, will help Randolph lead the Cavaliers on the court.
“I love playing with Faith,” Imovbioh said. “She really works hard. She’s a great leader on this team because she tries to lead by example. The younger players see her work ethic and just want to follow her and be like her. I’m just excited for the season and to play with Faith and the rest of my teammates.”
One of those younger players is freshman guard Mikayla Venson, who was named to the Virginia High School League National District First Team All-District Team.
“She’s a true point guard,” Boyle said. “She’s trying to learn how to be a general out there and run the team. She’s got a good basketball IQ, but she’s got to learn like all freshmen do. A lot of that is game management — when to push and when not to push. She can shoot the ball. She’s a good passer. She’s got a mid-range game to her. She can push tempo. I wouldn’t say she has a major weakness in her game. I think it’s just tightening things up and learning the pace of the game at the college level.”
Venson and her fellow freshmen — forwards Lauren Moses and Jae’Lisa Allen and freshman guard Aliyah Huland El — made up one of the top 15 recruiting classes in the nation, ranked No. 12 according to ESPN.
In addition to managing the game at the college level, the freshmen will also have to get used to the unfamiliarity of the pack-line defense and continue fighting when things get rough.
“It really comes down to a defense that’s really detailed-oriented, and some of it is really unconventional to what kids have learned growing up,” Boyle said. “Just staying with it is going to be key for us, and not just scrapping it just because it’s not working in the first five or six months.”
While the Cavaliers focus on improving the pack-line defense, options for the offensive side remain open.
“I want to pick and choose,” Boyle said. “When the time is there, I want to take it. I don’t want to slow the ball down, but I don’t want to be running on every possession, so I feel like we have two good offenses — motion-typed things that just move the ball on both sides of the floor, and they give us different looks.”
The Cavaliers are hoping these factors will combine to lead the team back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010 — Debbie Ryan’s penultimate season.
Virginia’s first opponent of the new season is Ohio State, who also failed to qualify for a postseason tournament last year after a semifinal loss in the Big Ten tournament, finishing the season 17-18 (5-11 Big Ten). The Buckeyes last reached postseason play after the 2011-12 season, falling in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Florida. The team's top returning player is junior guard Ameryst Alston, who led the team in assists and steals while scoring at least 10 points in all but two games. Ohio State, however, will be without redshirt freshman guard Kianna Holland and freshman forward Chelsea Mitchell, both of whom will miss the 2014-15 season with torn ACLs.
Tipoff is set for 7 p.m. Friday at John Paul Jones Arena.