Emboldened by a recent victory against then No. 15 Florida State and the return of distinguished alumni to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the women’s basketball team, Virginia women’s basketball hosted North Carolina Sunday in Charlottesville at John Paul Jones Arena. With a season-high attendance of 5,690, the Cavaliers (10-10, 2-7 ACC) upset the No. 20 Tar Heels (15-6, 6-2 ACC) 81-66 despite the absence of fifth-year forward Camryn Taylor.
The first period started off slow, with the jump ball going in favor of North Carolina and putting the Tar Heels on the board first. However, freshman guard Kymora Johnson knocked down a three-pointer less than 30 seconds later to make the initial score 3-2.
As the quarter continued, North Carolina began to pull ahead and Virginia struggled to keep up with its initial momentum, shooting only 28.6 percent from the field in the quarter. The period ended with the Cavaliers down nine points — the hosts had some ground to make up.
The Tar Heels began to widen the gap some more in the beginning of the second quarter, so Virginia called a timeout to slow their momentum. One minute later, a three-pointer from Johnson — her third out of four total for the night — prompted a 14-1 run that helped the Cavaliers close the gap.
A layup from graduate forward Sam Brunelle and a made jumpshot by junior guard Jillian Brown closed out the second quarter. By halftime, Virginia had completely shifted the game and was leading 37-34, with its shooting percentage having ballooned to 61.5 percent in the second quarter.
Johnson started off the second half of the game by making her final three-pointer of the night after receiving an assist from sophomore guard Paris Clark. The Cavaliers stayed in the lead throughout the third quarter, making sure the Tar Heels didn’t have the chance to pull ahead again.
The strong shooting from Virginia in the second quarter allowed it to keep its lead halfway through the second half, as both the Cavaliers and the Tar Heels scored 23 points in the third quarter, making it a three-point game going into the fourth quarter.
With the score being 60-57, both teams understood that the last period was going to have to be their strongest performance in order to take the victory. A pair of made free throws from North Carolina senior guard Deja Kelly closed the gap to just one point early in the fourth quarter.
However, the Cavaliers ensured the Tar Heels wouldn’t get any closer during the final period. Virginia worked as an effective team to snare 12 defensive rebounds and a total of 21 points in the fourth quarter, a performance that propelled the hosts to an 81-66 victory.
Johnson scored a game-high of 25 points and also had six rebounds, four assists and three steals. She attributes her performance — and that of the team — to the fans showing up and showing out for the Cavaliers.
“That was really, really helpful, to hear the crowd get into the game,” Johnson said. “But also we really just wanted to win. It’s hard to beat a team twice, and so we weren’t gonna let them do that.”
Another key player that had an impressive individual performance was Brunelle, who emerged from her shooting slump and finished the game with 14 points. The graduate student hit four of her five shots from beyond the arc.
The Tar Heels defeated the Cavaliers in their first matchup Jan. 14, but Virginia showed that earlier performances do not define what the outcomes will be later in the season. Similar to Johnson, Coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton recognized the positive impact that having an electric home crowd had on the team and their performance.
“With the alums here, with the crowd here and even with the message that the alums gave us last night, I think it just really sparked us,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “So I’m just happy to see that we’re continuing to fight. We understand the process. There’s going to be ups and downs when you’re building a program, but we’ve got kids that are resilient and competitors at heart, so there’s going to be fight in us.”
The next matchup for Virginia will be on the road Thursday against No. 16 Virginia Tech, the Cavaliers’ first of two regular-season rivalry face-offs. The game is set to tip off at 6 p.m. and will stream on ACC Network.