After a very promising end to their 2015-16 season, the Virginia women’s basketball team looks ready pick up where it left off as the team starts off play this week. The Cavaliers are coming off of an 18-16 season and a ninth-place ACC finish, but saw some of their best success down the stretch, making it to the octofinals of the WNIT tournament.
Coach Joanne Boyle, in her sixth season as Virginia’s head coach, believes that the team is coming into the season in a great position to keep its momentum rolling.
“We’re healthy, we’re taller, we’re longer and we’ve had some really good practices lately,” Boyle said. “I like the fact that we have a lot of length and versatility on the team this year, and the girls have been working really hard. There’s a great energy about this team.”
Boyle mentioned the versatility on the team and the amount of scoring weapons she sees on the bench and on the floor. She will especially look to junior guard Aliyah Huland El to carry some scoring load after a strong season as the sixth-man last year. El Huland said that with so much versatility, she isn’t feeling as much pressure to carry the brunt of scoring.
“In prior years I’ve held that main responsibility of scoring,” El Huland said. “But here we’ve got six or seven players that can score in double figures in any game, so I take it more as a responsibility than a pressure.”
The team will be led by its lone senior Breyana Mason, a two-time ACC All-Academic team honoree who flourished as the Cavaliers’ point guard at the end of last season. Mason must lead a team that lost three starters and welcomes four new freshman to the fold, but has seen good cohesiveness between the team as the offseason closes.
“[Our chemistry] has been really good, from the beginning we’ve just had a natural chemistry that’s been built,” Mason said. “The first years have been great and fit right in, there will be some players that can really contribute to this team early on. Players like Aliyah who have improved over the offseason really have a chance to come into their own this season.”
One of the new faces on the team is freshman center Felicia Aiyeotan, who stands at a towering six feet, nine inches. The Nigeria native has a chance to make a great impact on the team from the beginning of her career with such special size.
“She’s very unique, as soon as she got here she hit the ground running and has made so many changes with her strength and level of skill,” El Huland said. “Her work ethic definitely shows. I can’t wait to give her a few drop ins for layups.”
Even with the new height advantages and versatility of the team, Boyle knows the best way for the team to highly achieve is to be stronger, especially in rebounding. Boyle attributed some of their losses last season to their rebounding struggles and made it a point of emphasis in the offseason.
“[Rebounding] is starting to become a part of our culture and identity now,” Boyle said. “And I think the girls are really starting to buy into that.”
Boyle acknowledged how encouraging the balance on her team looks this season, with veteran experience and freshman talent both showing through in preseason scrimmages. The results thus far have given her cause to heighten the expectations for her team.
“I think we as a coaching staff have really set in stone the non-negotiables for this year in order to be successful,” Boyle said. “It’s early, but there have been some bright spots, so as long we stay healthy we can change some things up this year that we haven’t been able to in the past.”
The Cavaliers are predicted to finish 10th in the ACC this year, but look to shatter those expectations with their blend of young talent and veteran leadership.
Virginia opens its season at home against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders on Friday. The Blue Raiders had a very successful season last year, finishing 24-9 and 15-3 in the C-USA en route to a victory in the conference tournament. The team was eliminated by Florida State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Virginia and Middle Tennessee opened their seasons against each other last year, with the Cavaliers winning 66-70 on the Blue Raiders’ home court.
The Virginia women’s basketball team will look to carry its momentum from last season and the preseason into its home opener and start its season on the right track. Tip-off against Middle Tennessee is at 7 p.m. Friday at John Paul Jones Arena.