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Previewing next year's Virginia women’s basketball team

Five current freshman make up eight of the returning unit, three commits add to a young team

<p>Women's basketball will have a significant vacuum of leadership and scoring that will require young players to step up.&nbsp;</p>

Women's basketball will have a significant vacuum of leadership and scoring that will require young players to step up. 

Virginia women’s basketball concluded their season in the second round of the ACC tournament in a loss to Syracuse in early March. Since then, the NCAA decided to cancel all further play due to concerns surrounding COVID-19. Over the course of the shortened season, the talented Cavalier team struggled to find consistency, and now, Virginia must prepare for next season’s newer and younger core of players to take the court.

This past season, the Cavaliers finished with an overall record of 13-17, including winning eight of 10 games in ACC play. The team scored 61.4 points per game while allowing 63.1 points. As a team, Virginia shot 39.6 percent from the field and 31.2 percent from beyond the arc.

In the ACC, Virginia finished as in the middle of the pack, ninth out of 15 teams in the conference. The Cavaliers finished ahead of the likes of North Carolina, Wake Forest and Pittsburgh. Notably, this marked an improvement for the Cavaliers from the previous season when they finished 12th with a 5-11 conference record. However, this still shows a decline from Virginia’s seventh and eighth place finishes in the 2017-18 and 2016-17 seasons, respectively.

Next season, Virginia will be without three impactful seniors — guards Jocelyn Willoughby, Dominique Toussaint and Lisa Jablonowski were three of the top four scorers and instrumental pieces to this program. Virginia will undoubtedly miss team captain Willoughby the most, as she averaged 19.2 points and 7.7 rebounds in her final season, leading her to be drafted 10th overall in the 2020 WNBA Draft Friday.

The second-leading scorer, Toussaint, was the only other double-digit scorer this season — she averaged 10.9 points per game. In her final game against Virginia Tech, Toussaint moved into the top 10 in career assists after passing Tammi Reiss. Finally, Jablonowski’s reliable seven points and five rebounds a game and consistent effort will be tough to replace as well. 

With the loss of Virginia’s premier offensive and defensive contributors, Coach Tina Thompson will have an entirely new team to work with. There will be eight returning players, five of whom will be sophomores. 

According to the ESPN trading portal, the Cavaliers have three incoming player commits as well — all are rated as three-star recruits according to ESPN. This trio of athletic, up-tempo players with positional diversity is composed of point guard Kaydan Lawson, forward Nycerra Minnis and guard Zaria Johnson. Lawson and Johnson — from Ohio and Texas, respectively — can score in multiple ways and bring size to the backcourt as both are around 6 ft tall. Minnis can also contribute with her long 6-foot-2 frame and ability to crash the glass.

In total, the Cavaliers will have 7 guards and 4 forwards to compete during the offseason for a brand-new group of starters.

In the backcourt, the guard play of Willougby and Toussaint will be greatly missed. However, freshmen guards Shemera Williams, Kylie Kornegay-Lucas and Carole Miller spent a year learning from the two graduating seniors while also receiving significant minutes and reps. 

In 21 games last season, Williams scored 8.9 points per game — the third-most on the team — while Miller averaged six points with a 42 percent shooting percentage. Kornegay-Lucas added 5.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, which was the second-most on the team.

Each of the three had their moments throughout the season. Whether it was Kornegay-Lucas putting up 31 points against Old Dominion, Williams scoring a team-high 20 points at No. 5 Louisville or Miller earning a team-high 18 points against Notre Dame, all three made tremendous strides in terms of experience and confidence. 

With the addition of shot-producing, attacking guards Lawson and Johnson to an already young, dynamic group, the team will most likely play an athletic, up-tempo style of play. The flashes of scoring from the three previously mentioned freshmen on top of the scoring ability from these two incoming recruits should give this Cavalier offense plenty of weapons to utilise. However, it will still be a challenge for them to make up the consistent point scoring produced by Willoughby and Toussaint. 

In the frontcourt, Virginia says goodbye to Jablonowski, and unlike in the backcourt, there are few experienced players at the forward position who can replace her. Regardless, forwards Meg Jefferson, Dani Lawson and recent transfer Tihana Stojsavljevic bring size and athleticism to the position.

However, of the aforementioned trio, only Lawson started any games last year — and it was just five at that. Over the course of the season, Lawson averaged 0.6 points per game and scored just seven field goals in 278 minutes of gametime. Jefferson and Stojsavljevic, on the other hand, played the least minutes of all Cavaliers last season, scoring 25 points total between them.

Nevertheless, the incoming recruit Minnis brings quickness and mobility to the frontcourt. She has been described as an athletic forward who brings a range of offensive skills along with an active presence in the paint and in transition. Clearly, inexperience in the frontcourt will be a major issue and Virginia will need multiple players to step up quickly to fill the void.

Thompson will be challenged and tested to harden and prepare the young squad for competition. She will also need to re-work the offense and use different strategies with the new Cavaliers. Similar to men’s basketball Coach Tony Bennett, who lost his top three scorers in 2019, Thompson will need to find new ways to score and compete.

Without the shooting threat of Willoughby and Toussaint, the offense will have to be more creative and dynamic. Defensively, it will be easier for Thompson to control by promoting her high intensity, pressure-packed style of play mentality. 

There is a significant vacuum of leadership and scoring that will require young players to step up. Despite greater uncertainty and inexperience, the Cavalier team has an opportunity to re-define themselves and charter a new course in its history. 

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