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Virginia women’s basketball’s comeback falls short in 85-79 loss to No. 19 Syracuse

The Cavaliers suffered from a slow start, which ultimately cost them the game

<p>Graduate student guard Camryn Taylor scored a team-high 20 points Sunday.</p>

Graduate student guard Camryn Taylor scored a team-high 20 points Sunday.

After a week-long break, Virginia women’s basketball returned home to take on Syracuse Sunday in an ACC clash. The Cavaliers (12-13, 4-10 ACC) were hoping for their third straight win after impressive road victories against Boston College and Wake Forest, but the No. 19 Orange (22-4, 12-3 ACC) — who entered the matchup just one game behind Virginia Tech for first-place in the ACC — were too much for the hosts as they claimed an 85-79 victory. 

One intriguing matchup entering the game was between Virginia Coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton and Syracuse Coach Felisha Legette-Jack. Legette-Jack started her head coaching career at Hofstra — where she coached a young Agugua-Hamilton. In last year’s matchup — which marked the first between the two coaches — the Cavaliers lost by 18 points, meaning Agugua-Hamilton was really looking to improve this season against her former mentor. 

Despite Agugua-Hamilton’s motivations, Virginia struggled out of the gates. The first quarter was characterized by turnovers and an inability to make shots. The scoring opened a minute into the game when the Orange’s graduate guard Alaina Rice knocked down a three-point shot off of an assist from graduate guard Dyaisha Fair. Three-pointers would hurt the Cavaliers in the first quarter, with Syracuse hitting three of its nine attempts from beyond the arc. 

After three minutes without a field goal that put Virginia in a 10-2 deficit, graduate forward Camryn Taylor scored on two consecutive layups, which included an impressive spin move to break away from her defender. Then, with just over five minutes remaining, graduate forward Sam Brunelle knocked down a three-point shot off a catch-and-shoot to cut the deficit to five points. Unfortunately, that would be the final made field goal of the quarter for the Cavaliers, who made just three shots and turned the ball over seven times.

Virginia had an opportunity to shift the momentum early in the second quarter, as Syracuse started the period quietly with just four points in the opening four minutes. The Cavaliers took advantage and began to claw back behind a quick three-point shot from Brunelle. Unfortunately, they could only cut the deficit to nine before the Orange found their groove again. Junior guard Georgia Woolley led the charge for Syracuse offensively, pouring in five straight points to extend the Syracuse lead to 15 with 4:28 remaining in the half. Woolley would finish the game with 26 points.

Entering halftime, the difference between the two teams was glaring. Syracuse made 56.7 percent of their field goal attempts, while the Cavaliers were shooting just 30 percent. Additionally, the Orange successfully converted 10 points off Virginia’s 10 turnovers. If the Cavaliers were to come back from their 17-point halftime deficit, they would need to do a better job of protecting the ball. 

Out of halftime, Fair became a problem once again for Virginia. The guard — who played all 40 minutes of the game and finished the night with 33 points — knocked down a three-pointer on Syracuse’s first possession of the second half.

However, the third quarter started much better overall for Virginia. The Cavaliers turned the ball over just once in the period, and freshman guard Kymora Johnson started to heat up at the same time. After failing to convert on a single field goal in the first half, Johnson drained a pair of shots — a three-pointer and a deft floater — in quick succession to bring Virginia within nine points.  

However, despite Johnson’s efforts, the Cavaliers let things slip before the third-quarter buzzer sounded. The Orange finished the frame on a 6-0 run to push their lead back to 15 points entering the final period.

The teams traded baskets for the first several possessions of the fourth quarter, but with just under six minutes to play, the Cavaliers began a 6-0 run that would last over three minutes during one of the most crucial points of the game.

The surge started after Brunelle drove from the corner to the basket, drawing Taylor’s defender off of her and leaving Taylor open for the easy layup. 30 seconds later, Clark secured a defensive rebound and drove from one end of the court to the other for a layup of her own. The Syracuse lead was now just eight points. 

After several more stops and a few timely baskets from Johnson and Taylor, Virginia had pulled to within four points with ninety seconds to play. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers missed their next two shots and were forced to foul in hopes of a few missed free throws from the Orange. To the dismay of Virginia fans inside John Paul Jones Arena, Syracuse made six consecutive clutch free throws and walked away with an 85-79 win. Despite coming out after halftime strong to try and turn the tide, Agugua-Hamilton was critical of her team’s first-half performance Sunday.

“I thought there was a lot of controllables on our end,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “Obviously, credit to Syracuse. They played great and they have some players [that] are just really hard to guard. [In the] first half I thought we were completely different than the second half and had we been the second-half team, I think there probably would have been a different outcome.”

Surmounting a 17-point halftime deficit — especially against a ranked opponent like the Orange — is a difficult task. The Cavaliers couldn’t get things going offensively in the first two quarters, and while they patched up the holes tremendously with a 51-point second half, the situation they had put themselves in was too much to overcome. 

Virginia must find a way to hit its stride from the opening tip off to avoid setting itself up for failure in its coming games. The Cavaliers will stay at home for their next matchup against Miami Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on ACCNX. 

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