It took a win against the Ohio Bobcats for the Virginia women’s basketball team to finally find its footing last season.
With a 4-6 record through their first 10 games, the Cavaliers had their worst start to a season in four years. They were averaging 61.2 points per game — the second worst in the ACC through those first 10 games — and most recently lost 43-52 to a mediocre Rutgers team. It seemed like Virginia was doomed to miss the NCAA Tournament yet again, just as it had the previous seven seasons.
But following a 77-59 win over Ohio on Dec. 17 — a game in which four Cavaliers scored in double figures — Virginia turned things around. The Cavaliers went on an impressive eight-game win streak in which they scored 70 points or more in half of those matches. The team seemed to gain confidence. And ultimately, Virginia women’s basketball not only , but also — faring last season.
And if you thought the team is done climbing the ladder of success, then you are surely mistaken.
Currently, Virginia sits not too far of the AP Top 25 for women’s basketball teams nationwide, receiving two votes. Though the team graduated three starters last season — guards J’Kyra Brown and Aliyah Huland El and forward Lauren Moses — the Cavaliers have arguably its two most talented starters returning in junior guards Dominique Toussaint and Jocelyn Willoughby. Toussaint and Willoughby led Virginia in minutes played last season with 983 and 961, respectively.
The returns of Toussaint and Willoughby aren’t even the most exciting part of this season, though. Following the of seven-year head coach Joanne Boyle in March, Virginia Director of Athletics Carla Williams a WNBA legend in Tina Thompson to lead the team in April.
“She has proven to be a tremendous teacher and recruiter,” Williams said of Thompson at the hiring press conference in April. “I’m excited for the future of our program.”
In 1997, with the first ever pick in the WNBA’s history, the Houston Comets selected Thompson — who subsequently led the team to four championships. Fast-forward to 2015, Thompson served as an assistant coach at the University of Texas, where she helped direct the Longhorns to a total record of 84-21 and three-consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearances.
Virginia will be Thompson’s first head coaching gig — but she is ready for it, especially following the Cavaliers’ successes from last season.
“I think that we’re just contributing to a pretty solid foundation,” Thompson said at the team’s media day on Oct. 29. “We don’t have to rebuild when you have a core like that, but we just kind of have to change the mindset. We’re just giving it a facelift so to speak.”
For Thompson, this “facelift” is mainly centered around more offensive aggression. The team will have a great chance at the beginning of the season to work on that.
First up, Virginia will take on No. 6 Mississippi State at home on Friday, Nov. 9. The Cavaliers also took on the then- No. 7 Bulldogs in last year’s season-opener, with the match being held in Starkville, Miss. The match outcome was not what then-Coach Boyle was looking for — Virginia was soundly defeated 53-68 and had a whopping 23 turnovers on the night.
Allowing only 56.4 points per game, Mississippi State had the No. 21 best defense in the nation last season. If Thompson has prioritized attacking on offense and finishing around the rim this offseason, then surely the Bulldogs will serve as a good litmus test for the Cavaliers.
By no means should Virginia be a favorite to win this game. But people should not count them out, either. Both Thompson and the returning Cavaliers want to prove that last season’s successes were no fluke.
Rather, last season was only the beginning of what will be the most dangerous Virginia women’s basketball has looked in a long time.