No Virginia team has had more of an up-and-down season than women’s basketball. Last week the Cavaliers looked unstoppable, dismantling an impressive Virginia Tech squad via a 49-point shellacking. Three days later, they gave up 82 points in a losing effort against Notre Dame.
The seesaw trend continued over the past four days. Virginia won an overtime thriller against Georgia Tech Thursday only to get blown out by No. 15 Duke over the weekend.
"I was disappointed in our performance today," Virginia coach Joanne Boyle said following the loss to Duke. "This game sticks out as the one all year where we did not look like ourselves.”
Heading into this Sunday, I had high hopes Virginia could pull out a season-defining victory. The last time the Cavaliers had to pick up a pivotal win — the Commonwealth Clash — they made a statement by holding Virginia Tech to a meek 27 points.
In that same vein, Virginia’s defense has been impenetrable throughout the season. Before the game against Duke, the Cavaliers led the ACC in scoring defense by only allowing 53.9 points per game — the eighth fewest in the nation. Yet against Duke, the Cavaliers looked like a shell of themselves. In the third quarter, whereas Duke put up 23 points, the Cavaliers only scored six.
“I did not feel like we were locked in [on defense] tonight at all,” Boyle said. “We had too many open people in transition, some of the best players not even being guarded, two people defending a post player and no one on their guards.”
This lack of consistency can spell major trouble for the Cavaliers in their last six games. Four of Virginia’s opponents — Miami, Louisville, Florida State and NC State — are all in the AP Top 25. An underrated Virginia Tech squad will be looking for revenge on its home court. That leaves Virginia’s “worst” remaining opponent Wake Forest — a team that stands at 14-9.
The bottom line — Virginia is the underdog in every single match it has left and could conceivably finish the season on a 0-7 skid.
Considering the Cavaliers’ play in these last six games will essentially determine if they make it to the NCAA championship, they cannot afford to lose. Coupled with the fact that the Cavaliers have not received a bid to play in the NCAA Tournament for the past six seasons and the team has a potential recipe for tragedy on its hands.
Not all hope is lost, though. The Cavaliers have shown flashes of brilliance this season and have the tools to beat some top-tier teams.
First, the Cavaliers are very similar to their male counterparts in that they suffocate their opponents on defense. In six games this season, the Cavaliers have held their opponents to under 50 points.
The teams are similar on the offensive side as well. Averaging 65.5 points per game, Virginia heavily relies on sharing the ball in order to score. Currently, senior guard Breyana Mason and junior forward Lauren Moses are leading the team with 10.4 points per game each.
Yet, just like coach Tony Bennett’s squad, Boyle’s team falls apart when opponents bust its defense open. In seven of Virginia’s eight losses, the Cavaliers gave up 60 points or more — three of which saw the Cavaliers give up at least 70.
When teams like Duke are able to put up points against Virginia, then the Cavaliers’ identity is taken away. They’re forced to play a scoring game they simply cannot win. With three teams that are in the top 50 in points per game left on Virginia’s schedule, the Cavaliers have two options — either step up defensively or crumble under the pressure.
The Cavaliers get to control their own destiny. They have the necessary pieces to grind out a few tough games down the stretch and to play into March. All they need to do is return to their lockdown-defensive mindset and play every game like it is a must-win situation.
Ben Tobin is an Assistant Managing Editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TobinBen.