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The comeback of Virginia women’s basketball

After an abysmal 2021-22 season, the Cavaliers now find themselves on an upward trajectory

<p>Coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton has the Cavaliers on an upward trajectory, finishing with a winning record in conference play for the first time since 2016-17.</p>

Coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton has the Cavaliers on an upward trajectory, finishing with a winning record in conference play for the first time since 2016-17.

While Virginia women’s basketball is not expected to make March Madness this season, the buzz and excitement for the team are the highest it has been in recent memory. Now, all eyes are on Coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton in her first year.

The last time Virginia played a game in the NCAA Women’s Tournament was March 18, 2018. After defeating the seventh-ranked Cal Berkeley in the first round, the Cavaliers were knocked out by South Carolina in the second round. Ironically, the Gamecocks were led by Virginia basketball legend Dawn Staley, whose number is retired in John Paul Jones Arena.

While the Cavaliers made the Tournament 24 times between 1984-2010, the program has only returned once in the past 14 seasons, and former coach Joane Boyle retired just two days after the team bowed out in the 2018 Round of 32. The Cavaliers have not made an appearance in the Tournament since.

Tina Thompson was named as the head coach of the women’s basketball team entering the 2018-19 season. Being one of the best players in WNBA history, expectations were high as Cavalier fans hoped to reach heights experienced under Debbie Ryan.

The partnership was not meant to be, though. Thompson finished with a 30-63 record as Virginia’s head coach and was fired following the 2021-2022 season. In addition to her lack of success in the win column, Jocelyn Willoughby was the lone player drafted into the WNBA during Thompson’s tenure, something fans were disappointed about considering the coach’s professional experience. The life of the program seemed to be a thing of the past. 

For their new head coach, Virginia turned to Missouri State to poach Agugua-Hamilton. Her credentials made her an obvious candidate, as she won the Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year award in both 2020 and 2021. She also had experience in Virginia, coaching at Virginia Commonwealth University as a graduate assistant and assistant. 

Despite all of her experience, Agugua-Hamilton was inheriting a difficult job in attempts to revive a Virginia team that finished with a 5-22 record last season and that had to forfeit two games. But you would not be able to tell last season’s results based on the basketball the team is playing now. 

Virginia finds themselves sitting at 15-12 in Agugua-Hamilton’s first season as head coach — an increase in winning percentage from 18 percent to just under 58 percent. There seems to be a renewed energy around the women’s basketball team on the Virginia campus that had been missing since 2018. So, how did she do it?

The most obvious difference in the seasons is the addition of one player — senior forward Sam Brunelle. Brunelle transferred to Virginia from Notre Dame after the 2022 season. From the start, it was clear that the homecoming was going to be a success for the Ruckersville, Va. native. She dropped 21 points and seven rebounds in her second game with the Cavaliers, and has been a force on the court ever since. 

On the season, Brunelle averaged 11 points, third on the team, and led the team in minutes played per game. Unfortunately, she suffered a foot injury and announced Feb. 11 that she will miss the rest of the season because of surgery — she will be returning to Virginia for her final season of eligibility. For a team that is not deep in the front court, the loss of the six-foot-two Brunelle will be difficult to overcome.

Brunelle is not the only reason for the Cavaliers’ success, though. Senior forward Camryn Taylor and junior guard Mir McLean are currently first and second in points per game for the Cavaliers, with 13.6 points and 12.2 points, respectively. Taylor also leads the team in rebounds. Both players increased their points per game by nearly a point from last season, indicating the upward trend in the team’s production since the introduction of Agugua-Hamilton to the program. What the new coach has done is most evident on the offensive side of the floor, where the Cavaliers are scoring over 14 points per game more than last year’s squad.

Virginia started out hot, winning their first 12 games, but started to struggle as conference play began. The Cavaliers lost 11 out of their next 13 games, with the defense struggling in particular. After allowing only four opponents to score more than 60 points in the first 12 games, a 70-56 loss against Duke signaled a downturn in fortune for the program. The defense would then give up more than 60 points more often than not, which is partially because of the increase in competition, with Virginia going against ranked teams such as Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and North Carolina.

Things may be looking up for the Cavaliers, though. After numerous close losses to ranked teams, Virginia finally got over the hump with a 71-59 victory over then-No. 22 NC State. The victory snapped a seven-game losing streak for the team, and — arguably more importantly — proved the Cavaliers could overcome the frontcourt depth hit and win without Brunelle. Senior guard Taylor Vallady stepped up and dropped 22 against the Wolfpack, and could be an X-factor for the team as the regular season comes to a close. 

While Agugua-Hamilton's first season already should be considered a success, the future seems even more promising. The rookie head coach has already managed to land the commitments of two top 50 players in the 2023 recruiting class. Five-star recruit Kymora Johnson chose to stay home for college, with the St. Anne’s-Belfield product committing to Virginia on Sept. 11. When Paired with Olivia McGhee — the 45th ranked player in the class according to ESPN — it is clear that Agugua-Hamilton intends to also build a successful program in the long-term.

A new life has been injected into John Paul Jones Arena. While replicating the success the Virginia Women’s Basketball Team had in the 90s is probably impossible, Agugua-Hamilton is taking the team in the right direction. It is clear to everyone on Grounds that this is a very different team than what they saw last season. 

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