Tuesday’s Virginia women’s basketball season opener will double as freshman orientation for the Cavaliers.
UVa will have five first-year players making their college debuts when the Wahoos host Bucknell at John Paul Jones Arena. They are part of a a recruiting class that second-year head coach Tina Thompson hopes will eventually help Virginia compete for ACC titles and NCAA Tournament berths.
“They’ve been coming along well,” Thompson said of the first-years. “It was a little interesting in the beginning, but I think they are learning the speed and the pace of practice and also getting familiar with our veteran players. Things like that are definitely going to take time. ... The chemistry has grown to the point that the communication is good.”
The freshman class includes several highly touted players, including guard Shemera Williams, who was ranked the No. 54 recruit in the country by ESPN. Williams, who played at the Milwaukee Academy of Science, averaged 39.9 points per game during her junior year and was a two-time USA Today Wisconsin Player of the Year.
Another ESPN Top 100 recruit who will make her Cavalier debut on Tuesday is Carole Miller, who averaged 20 points and nine rebounds per game during her senior year at Edison High School in Northern Virginia.
Williams and Miller will debut for a Virginia team that returns just three players from last season’s squad, which finished with a 12-19 record. What the Cavaliers lack in returning quantity they do make up for in quality.
Jocelyn Willoughby and Dominique Toussaint are both back for their senior seasons after strong junior campaigns.
Willoughby, who has started every game she has played during her college career, led the Wahoos in both scoring (14.8 ppg) and rebounding (8.3 rpg) last season and scored in double figures in 24 games. Toussaint was second on the team in scoring last season, averaging 11.1 points per game, and posted a team-high 104 assists.
Willoughby and Toussaint, along with fellow senior Lisa Jablonowski, will be counted on to lead a Virginia team that has talent but lacks experience.
“I think it’s a challenge when you have such a large group of incoming first-years,” Willoughby said. “I think the approach is to be somewhat understanding. When we came in as first-years, we were expected to produce as well and they are in the same position. But I think it’s also understanding, but [being] demanding at the same time. Yes, there is a learning curve, but they need to come up to speed quickly for us to have the successful season that we want to have.”
In addition to the five-player freshman class, the Cavaliers also have a pair of players that have been with the program for some time but have yet to see game action.
French guard Amadine Toi is entering her third year with the program but has missed each of the past two seasons with knee injuries.
“She has come back really strong,” Thompson said of Toi’s recovery. “She’s in full practice now and able to start and complete a full practice, so that’s definitely reassuring for us. She has a lot of nerves. She’s anxious about what she looks like and expectations. The conversation I have with her on a daily basis is just to tackle each day. Don’t worry about the future. Don’t worry about what everyone is thinking. Stay in the moment.
“Where she once was she will eventually get there but she has to let her body catch up with her mind.”
Like Toi, Dani Lawson is expected to take the court this season for the Cavaliers after a long layoff. Lawson began her college career at Purdue, but missed most of her freshman season with the Boilermakers following knee surgery. After her first college season, Lawson opted to transfer to Virginia and sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
“I kind of look at Dani just like I look at Amadine,” Thompson said. “They both haven’t played in two years and it started with an injury. It’s going to take time. Our first game out is going to be the first time for them in a really, really long time so its going to be really important for us ... to exhibit a lot of tough love but also support in that they know that they can make mistakes but there’s an expectation of what they bring to the team and what they contribute.”
One player that will not see the floor this season is senior center Felicia Aiyeotan, who recently announced that her college career is over after being diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects connective tissue in the body. Aiyeotan, who is still a member of the team and attends all team functions, has received a lot of support from Thompson and her teammates since her diagnosis became public.
“For me the focus has not been basketball, it has been her person and just helping her figure out what the next steps are,” Thompson said of Aiyeotan.
While Aiyeotan works to figure the next steps in her life, her fellow seniors will be trying to lead a group of talented newcomers to a successful season.
“I think the biggest goal is to have a better season this year than we did last year and to win,” Willoughby said. “On top of that ... just being leaders for our underclassmen and making sure they understand what it’s going to take to have the season that we need to have.”