In the Virginia Cavalier’s season opener this Friday in Charlottesville, the Hoos took down Middle Tennessee State 63-51 at home to start off the new year with a “W.”
Members of the United States military stood in the bleachers and waved as Semper Paratus, Anchors Aweigh, The Marines’ Hymn, and The Army Goes Rolling Along echoed through the stands.
It was Veterans Day and the whole arena seemed to feel patriotic: the fan-interactive games and promotions were military-based, Miss Virginia 2015 walked out in a red dress and sang “America, the Beautiful” on court, and a group of marines played knockout before tipoff.
All things considered, Paul Jones Arena filled out nicely for the start of the women’s basketball season (albeit ‘nicely’ is a relative term if you compare the women’s turnout with the men’s usual crowd). For the women, the half-filled seats of JPJ were a routine sight. Finishing the 2015-2016 season 9th in the ACC with an 18-16 record, the Cavaliers’ fan base is small but loyal.
“What, is she too athletic for you?” a regular yells at the referee just minutes into the game. She’s not alone – many of the other season ticket holders call out loudly against traveling calls, missed shots, fouls: even when their voice is one of the only to be heard in the quiet hum of a dead ball.
Yes, the team’s loyal fans were there – and the fans were loud.
Despite the encouragement from the bleachers, the Cavs took a slow start to the game, giving the first quarter to the Blue Raiders 14-11 before coming back to end the first half with a 33-21 lead.
Head Coach Joanne Boyle, in her sixth season with Virginia, says some of that slow start was just the team trying to find its start-of-season rhythm.
“You know, we haven’t played a game, other than some scrimmages, in six to eight months,” Boyle says, “…I think it’s just having a feel for each other out there”
This year, building up that “feel” could take some time: with two starting freshmen in Dominique Toussaint and Jocelyn Willoughby, as well as playing time from freshmen Lisa Jablonowski and Felicia Aiyeotan, the women’s team is young this season.
For Coach Boyle, young doesn’t necessarily spell danger, though – not only was she impressed with the performance of the freshmen, but Boyle hopes that after some minor chemistry adjustments, each of them will be putting in key minutes for the team.
“For four of them to really contribute on their first night – I mean, hopefully that’s the plan moving forward,” Boyle says of the freshmen.
“Wait, I’m confused again,” a fan sarcastically sneers at the ref, “How can she be traveling if she dribbled the ball?”
This Virginia fan is talking about Aliyah Huland El – a junior returning guard for Virginia and a key player for the team going forward. In fact, most of these comments are directed toward either Huland El, senior Breyana Mason, or fellow junior Lauren Moses. The trio were big players for the Cavaliers last season and look to be leaders for the young team in the upcoming year.
The fans were more silent when it came to the younger players. Not that they weren’t impressed with Toussaint’s 16 points and Willoughby’s 13 – more than likely, they just hadn’t gotten used to the idea of yelling on behalf of these new recruits yet.
As it turns out, Toussaint wasn’t quite ready for her stellar performance either. Toussaint says she was nervous about starting her first college basketball game – but none of that nervous energy translated to the court.
“Once the ball went up, I felt fine,” Toussaint says. “We practiced what we had to do and it was just muscle memory from there.”
Muscle memory was exactly what the second half looked like for the team as the Cavs maintained a solid lead over the Blue Raiders. After six tied scores in the first half and six lead changes, Virginia kept the Blue Raiders at bay for the next 20 minutes of playing time, leading by as much as 20 in the third quarter.
Virginia will go on to play Coppin State in their second home game of the season this Sunday at 2:00PM.