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Women’s basketball to open season Friday night

Tina Thompson to make debut as Head Coach

<p>Virginia Coach Tina Thompson will make her debut for the Cavaliers against Mississippi State.</p>

Virginia Coach Tina Thompson will make her debut for the Cavaliers against Mississippi State.

The Virginia women’s basketball team will open its season Friday night at home against No. 6 Mississippi State. 

“We opened against them last year and that was a fun, exciting game, but now they get to come to our house, so that makes it even better,” junior forward Jocelyn Willoughby said.

Friday’s game will be Tina Thompson’s debut as the head coach of the Cavaliers. She replaces Joanne Boyle, who retired in March after seven years with Virginia. Athletics Director Carla Williams hired Thompson as Boyle’s replacement in April.

Last season, Virginia reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, earning an at-large bid as a No. 10 seed after finishing seventh in the ACC during the regular season and losing in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament. The Cavaliers won their first NCAA Tournament game 68-62 over No. 7 seed California, before falling 66-56 to No. 2 seed South Carolina in the second round.

A day after Virginia’s elimination from the NCAA Tournament, Boyle abruptly retired and was replaced by Thompson, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer . In her playing career, Thompson was a 4-time WNBA champion and 2-time Olympic gold medalist, retiring as the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer in 2013. After retiring, she served as assistant coach and associate head coach at Texas before coming to Virginia.

“The choice of putting me in this chair to lead this team and this program is probably not the easy choice,” Thompson said. “It's a choice of courage to take a chance on someone like me that is not as experienced as maybe a sitting head coach who has a lot of experience.”

Under Thompson, Virginia will attempt to build on their NCAA Tournament appearance last season. 

“Making the tournament is an expectation for us,” Willoughby said. “It’s about getting back to that point and advancing further each year.”

The development of junior guard Dominique Toussaint will be crucial. Though Toussaint led the team in scoring last season with 11.4 points per game and assists with 122, she also turned the ball over 101 times — 24 more than anyone else on the team.

Toussaint also only made 37.9 percent of her field goals last season, below the team average despite attempting 71 more shots than anyone else on the team over the course of the year. The Virginia offense will once again run through Toussaint this season, and much of its success will come down to her shot and pass selection.

“I think the skill work and my shot percentage will go up over time,” Toussaint said. “What I focused more on [before the season] was leadership, being a third year and having that experience under my belt.”

Willoughby was the only player to start every game for Virginia last season and has started every game of her Virginia career. Willoughby was third on the team in scoring last season and was recently named to the preseason watchlist for the Cheryl Miller Award which honors the best small forward in the nation.

Two seasons ago, Willoughby made the ACC All-Freshman team. She was the only Cavalier with two 20-point games that season, leading the team in rebounds with 6.2 per game and averaging 9.8 points per game. However, Willoughby regressed statistically last year as the Virginia offense occasionally struggled to score.

“[This season,] we’re looking to play a faster-paced game and put more points on the board,” Willoughby said.

Junior center Felicia Aiyeotan will also return to the starting lineup for Virginia. Aiyeotan was named to last year’s ACC All-Defensive team, leading the conference in blocked shots with 69 and finishing 11th in the conference in rebounds per game. At 6-foot-9 Aiyeotan is also tied for the tallest active player in NCAA women’s basketball.

Thompson’s coaching may also end up being beneficial for Aiyeotan’s development. At Texas, Thompson worked closely with centers Imani Boyette and Kelsey Lang. Under Thompson’s tutelage, Boyette became the first player in Texas history to reach 1,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 200 career blocks, while Lang is sixth in Texas history with 190 blocks.

"I think [Aiyeotan] can continue to improve," Thompson said. "She has a wealth of knowledge of the game. To me, a lot of it is confidence. That's what it is in most players."

"I remember my first year, and just looking back at it this summer, I couldn't believe the progress that I've made, just [in terms of having] confidence on the court and knowing the things that I could do," Aiyeotan said.

Friday’s game will tip off at 7 p.m. at John Paul Jones Arena.


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