With Virginia women’s basketball’s first public exhibition occurring Thursday against Pitt-Johnstown and its season opener Wednesday against Maryland Eastern Shore, basketball season is quickly approaching, and the Cavaliers are ready for it. Coach Amaka “Mox” Agugua-Hamilton discussed this season’s outlook with the press Monday.
With eight returning players and six new recruits, each player is going into the season with a range of goals — from having a successful start to their collegiate career to finishing their final season of eligibility strong. Agugua-Hamilton looked at the upcoming season and gave insight into her team, saying she feels that everyone, including the new recruits, is ready.
“I just think that our culture is thriving right now,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “We just have kids that get along.”
To recap, the Cavaliers had developed as a team last year but still had some shortcomings. They started last season with a bang and won their first 12 games in a row before falling to Duke Dec. 21. Virginia then struggled during the second half of the season where it lost seven games in a row before bouncing back with a win against then-No. 22 NC State Feb. 12. The recovery showed that Agugua-Hamilton’s team had resilience, even as they were bounced from the ACC Tournament in the first round and declined a WNIT invite due to injury and health concerns.
Although it did not make it to the NCAA Tournament, Virginia had a remarkable turnaround in its 15-14 regular season record compared to 5-21 the season before. The Cavaliers were nationally ranked — No. 25 — for the first time since the 2011-12 season. This was largely attributed to the then-new Agugua-Hamilton and the addition of then-senior forward Sam Brunelle.
Fan interest in the program has returned in force due not only due to Agugua-Hamilton’s near-immediate reinvigoration of the program on the court, but also from the team’s commitment to engaging with the community. Throughout the offseason the team has made stops in local elementary schools to promote reading and have fun with the youth.
“People are kind of getting behind what we do,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “We’ve been giving back a lot in the community…we want to make sure that community is a part of what we do.”
Agugua-Hamiltone also said the community has become increasingly involved now that there are three players native to the Charlottesville area, which is bound to increase the already-doubled attendance — from the 2021-22 season to the 2022-23 season — for the upcoming home games.
“They understand what it means to put that Virginia on your chest…they take a lot of pride in that,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “I think that’s also helped season ticket holders…you want to see your local talent.”
The three players Agugua-Hamilton is talking about are Brunelle, freshman guard Kymora Johnson and freshman guard Olivia McGhee. As McGhee and Johnson are new to the team, they have been focusing on integrating themselves into the team and learning how to step up and be leaders on the court.
Brunelle, on the other hand, was a key player in the recent season. A top recruit out of nearby William Monroe High School, she transferred from Notre Dame to join the Cavaliers last season, where she led the team in minutes played per game and averaged 11 points per game — third on the team. Even though a foot injury took her out for the rest of the season Feb. 11, she was a defining addition to the team.
This is Brunelle’s final season of eligibility, so she wants to give it her all as both a player and a leader. Agugua-Hamilton called it “her last go-around” and said that she — along with the other graduate student players — will need to play with the “grit and want” necessary to finish their final season strong and with no regrets.
On the other hand, Agugua-Hamilton is just getting started in her coaching career at Virginia. Looking to the start of her second season as head coach, she highlighted she wanted to carry forward patience, as well as persevering through adversity and resilience.
The idea she emphasized the most, however, was “togetherness of the group.” Throughout the summer, Agugua-Hamilton made sure the team had plenty of time to practice together and bond so that they could be not only a unit on the court but also a family off court.
This was a key point for Agugua-Hamilton, as the players come from all across the country and even from other nations — specifically the Swedish freshman forward Edessa Noyan. When asked how Noyan was adjusting to living in the United States, Agugua-Hamilton responded honestly.
“She kind of left everything back home,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “She just had to get comfortable with that.”
However, Agugua-Hamilton was impressed with how well Noyan adjusted to living here and attributed part of it to how the team is Noyan’s “family away from home.” Basketball-wise, she has been impressed with Noyan’s ability to pick things up quickly and play with both finesse and power, on top of her recent achievement of being a part of Sweden’s U20 Junior National Team.
On top of Noyan, there is another new face that will effectively change the positions of other key players. Graduate student Taylor Lauterbach graduated early from Kansas State University to come study and play at Virginia during her final years of eligibility. At 6-foot-7, Lauterbach will be key in rebounding and defense as a center — allowing players like fifth-year forward Camryn Taylor and graduate student forward London Clarkson to play their natural positions.
The combination of new faces and returning key players will make for a diverse team that will progressively learn and grow with Agugua-Hamilton as she continues to come into her role as head coach.
Their first ACC matchup will be against NC State Dec. 31. Until then, they will be focusing on taking the season “one game at a time” and looking for room for improvement as they start to face other teams after a summer of scrimmages. Look forward to their exhibition Thursday at 6 p.m. against Pitt-Johnstown and their season opener Wednesday at 7 p.m. against Maryland Eastern Shore.