Women’s basketball splits Duel in the Desert Tournament in Las Vegas

The Cavaliers fall to No. 15 Mississippi State Saturday after Friday’s win against UNLV

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Senior guard Jocelyn Willoughby guided Virginia past UNLV with a double-double and led the team in scoring in both games.

Courtesy Virginia Athletics

Virginia traveled to Las Vegas last weekend as part of the annual Duel in the Desert Tournament, played at UNLV’s Cox Pavilion. After a resurgent win against host team UNLV Friday, Virginia fell at the hands of No. 15 Mississippi State to settle at 5-6 on the season. Virginia will look to build upon this tournament’s performance as the Cavaliers enter ACC play next week.

In its first game back in 14 days, Virginia women’s basketball secured its first victory since Nov. 30 and advanced to the championship game in the Duel in the Desert Tournament. The Cavaliers (5-6, 0-0 ACC) beat UNLV (4-8, 0-1 MW) 63-55 Friday night to kick off the competition.

Initially, Virginia struggled offensively in a low-scoring first-quarter performance. With only two made field goals in the 10-minute period, the Cavaliers entered the second quarter down 11-5. 

The start of the second quarter couldn’t have been more different with Virginia making a 10-0 run. Shots began to drop for senior guard Jocelyn Willoughby and sophomore forward Dani Lawson. The lead stretched to six but UNLV continued to linger, connecting on two three-point jumpers with under three minutes to go. The half concluded with Virginia on top 26-23.

Playing like a second-half team, Virginia outscored UNLV 20-8 in the third quarter. The Cavaliers spread the ball around offensively with five different players scoring. On top of 50 percent shooting from the field in the third period, Virginia held UNLV to 21 percent shooting and were uplifted by a tough, physical defensive effort. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers earned a 15-point lead with a score of 46-31.

While the Lady Rebels outscored Virginia 24-17 in the final period, the Cavaliers had built a large enough lead to withstand the offensive push. After taking their largest lead of the game — 17 points — with a three-pointer from freshman guard Shemera Williams, UNLV went on an 11-2 run to counter. Despite the Rebels’ surge, Virginia held on and sealed an important non-conference victory on the road to get back to .500.

Virginia’s main offensive weapon and top scorer Willoughby came away with a game high 17 points and 10 rebounds for a double-double. Two other players joined Willoughby with double-digit scoring performances — senior forward Lisa Jablonowski and Williams. Williams proved to be another freshman with strong scoring ability.

Winning against UNLV secured Virginia a spot in the tournament final against Mississippi State (11-2, 0-0 SEC), but the Cavaliers couldn’t keep up with the Bulldogs — losing 72-59. 

The Bulldogs came out hot in the first quarter, building up a double-digit lead early before Virginia cut into the deficit to make it 20-12 entering the second quarter. While neither team shot particularly well — as both sides shot under 40 percent from the field — Mississippi State built up its lead by connecting on five of its nine three-pointers in the quarter. Virginia’s inability to guard the outside shot on defense, in addition to making just four baskets total in the first quarter, hindered the fast start the Cavaliers hoped to gain.

The second quarter saw a much more competitive matchup. Virginia tightened up its perimeter defense, as the Bulldogs made just one three-pointer the rest of the game. Virginia’s offensive rhythm was fueled by perimeter and paint scoring from Willoughby, Jablonowski and senior guard Dominique Toussaint who led the Cavaliers’ run to tie the game at 26 apiece midway through the second quarter.

Mississippi State quickly rallied to close the half on a 14-4 run, entering the third quarter with a 40-30 lead. 

The second half followed a similar pattern as the first. The Bulldogs outscored the Cavaliers 19-10 in the third quarter behind an 11-0 run to open up a 25-point lead with under three minutes left in the game. Virginia’s 42 percent shooting in the quarter resulted in just 10 points while the Bulldogs were able to seize control of the game entering the final quarter of play.

While the Cavaliers outscored Mississippi State 19-13 in the fourth quarter, it was not enough to complete the comeback and win the tournament as Virginia missed a string of consecutive field goals that buried their chance at the tournament crown. In a game characterized by runs, Mississippi State simply had more stretches of extended scoring dominance over Virginia for the Cavaliers to overcome. 

Jocelyn Willoughby again led both teams in scoring with 21 points as Lisa Jablonowski and Dominique Toussaint chipped in 10 and 11 points, respectively, to round out Virginia’s double-digit scorers on the day. While the Cavaliers’ 16 turnovers contributed to Virginia’s inability to score in the first and third quarters, shooting 13-16 from the free throw line is a positive sign going into ACC play.

Up next, the Cavaliers will travel to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech Sunday at McCamish Pavilion. 

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