With the men’s basketball team less than a month away from its season opener, so is the Virginia Cavaliers women’s team. As such, representatives from both squads are down in North Carolina for ACC Media Tipoff. The women went first, so we’ve got the full transcript from their moderated conversation:
THE MODERATOR: Welcome to the ACC, Coach. It’s awesome for me. I’ve been a fan forever. I think this is a treat. They couldn’t hire anyone better. So I’m really excited to see what this journey is going to look like with UVA and just the history behind it too. I think this is really awesome. Congratulations, and welcome to the ACC. We’ll talk about the familiar faces we’re going to see in the ACC; and Sam Brunelle and Camryn Taylor as well, thank you so much for joining us. I want to start just here, getting to this point. What went to really getting you to say yes to UVA and then also what it means to you to be a part of this conference?
AMAKA AGUGUA-HAMILTON: Thank you for your kind words, first of all. Being a part of ACC is like a dream come true. I grew up in Northern Virginia, so ACC country. So for me to be able to be a part of a program like UVA, to me it’s one of the best athletic and academic institutions in the country, and icing on the cake is I’m home. So when I was going through the process, I was at Missouri State. We were fortunate to have a lot of success there. And then I was fortunate to have a lot of opportunities, which I don’t take for granted. But it was a no-brainer when it came to UVA because I knew the history. When I was growing up, it was in the forefront of the country. It was Final Fours, it was Elite Eights, Dawn Staley, Wendy Palmer, all those great names, and many more.
So that was my idea of UVA women’s basketball. And just to talk to Carla Williams, who I think is one of the best ever, and her vision and what she wanted to see the program do and the athletic department lined up with mine, and it just was a no-brainer. We have all the resources we need. We have great players. There’s talent there. There’s going to be more talent coming. I’m just excited. I’m excited to bridge the gap with the alums again, bring them back. We’ve already started doing that. Just to make them proud and get this program back to where it needs to be.
THE MODERATOR: Just in my tenure playing, I remember when we saw Virginia, just ahh, we got to see them again? Just the toughness and the tenacity that they had. It was just one of the teams where you had to show up and put forth your best effort. When you look at your philosophy in this group in the ACC, what does that look like?
COACH AMAKA AGUGUA-HAMILTON: Yeah, there is a lot of toughness to it and just being competitive. That’s one thing we talk about in practice a lot, just being competitive, playing through mistakes, and playing together. The culture that I’ve instilled already, the players that I’ve bought into, it carries over on the court and off the court, and it’s just about togetherness and genuinely respecting each other and building a foundation of respect, loyalty, trust, a safe place for people, no-judgment zone. When you have that on the court, you have that camaraderie and that synergy, that alone can win you more games.
From the tactical side, we’re going to play fast. We have athletes. We have shooters. We have a lot of the tools we need. And we want to play with a lot of tempo and be very disruptive on the defensive end. So going into the ACC, I think the conference is an athletic conference. I think it’s a physical conference. And the way that we play translates into the teams we’re going to play. We just have to be able to buy in and stay together, especially when we hit adversity and get over the hump. I just think I was blessed in this situation to have the players and the talent I need that translates into my system and what I’m trying to instill. So it’s been a great transition. I’m really proud of where they’re at.
THE MODERATOR: You have a couple of outstanding performers here joining us as well. I want to go to you first and just see what’s the transition been like for you and the excitement around the locker room, just on campus, just to know like a fresh start, in a sense?
SAM BRUNELLE: It’s been truly awesome, especially coming back to Virginia and just being back in like my hometown. There’s definitely a different energy in Virginia for women’s basketball. I grew up being a ball girl for UVA women’s basketball games and growing up and watching Chelsea Shine and that era of player and I was like, Ooh, I want to be them someday. Those are the people I looked up to. So being able to re-establish UVA basketball and get it back to where it should be, it’s exciting. It’s great to walk around campus and hear how people are excited about games and be there for us.
THE MODERATOR: You know that’s going to be a feature at some point. We need pictures to back that up. That’s really full circle.
COACH AMAKA AGUGUA-HAMILTON: We have pictures.
THE MODERATOR: For you two, just understanding the opportunity in front of you. When you hear opportunity, what does that look like for UVA?
CAMRYN TAYLOR: I think opportunity means up for grabs. It’s all there. I think basketball gives us opportunities that many people just don’t get. Just taking advantage of the opportunity in general, playing our best, buying in. I think that’s been one of the biggest things this year this culture has pretty much bought in. And it’s just buying into each other, trusting each other, and coming in every day with that same mentality of just going to get it. I think that also comes up the opportunity.
THE MODERATOR: Sam, I just wanted to come back to you. You said coming back home. It feels like being home. It feels good. There’s a lot of great energy around it. Even where you’re coming from with Notre Dame and understanding what it takes to win and getting a taste of tournament, what are you establishing even from a leadership standpoint amongst the locker room on how you guys have to play and show up every day to make sure you’re back in those same situations?
SAM BRUNELLE: Absolutely. I think — I took a lot from my time at Notre Dame. I think one of the most important things that I took was accountability. That was something instilled by Coach McGraw my freshman year and still instilled by Coach Ivey after that. Honestly, when all of us really learned what accountability meant, whether that’s for yourself or for your teammates, we became more successful. My first two years there, obviously were not very successful team-wise; that third year, though, we made strides, and we got to where Notre Dame used to be. So being able to bring that to Virginia and that knowledge is great, and being able to lead these girls. Honestly, our team is full of leaders, and that’s really exciting to be surrounded by girls who want to work hard, who want to learn from each other, and take criticism well, because that’s going to help us be a very successful team.
THE MODERATOR: I just want to go back to you as well, Camryn. When you’re looking at being here the season prior and just knowing what it takes to win but not quite getting over the hump, what are you most excited about as far as the group that you have now and just what you guys are trying to establish out of the gate?
CAMRYN TAYLOR: I think there’s so many things to be excited about. Obviously I talked about the culture. We talked — Sam talked about just how many people bring their energy every single day. Everybody has their own way of leading, whether that’s leading by example, like vocally, just bringing that energy every day. I think it’s so many things to be excited about. There’s so many things that come with as a team, the energy that we all bring, but I think I’m most excited about how we all are just going to come in and just dominate. I really want to dominate this year.
Obviously we’re seniors this year, so it’s just something that we’ve been waiting for, just that winning mentality. Everybody’s coming in just excited and buying in and just eager to like learn and to grow honestly. There’s always so much room to grow for us. That’s probably the biggest thing I’m excited about.
THE MODERATOR: Coach, I was just curious, you do have two first years, I think only two players who started their careers at Virginia. Does it feel different with the number of transfers or people that played other places before, that you’re on this journey together? How does that help with the buy-in? I know you’ve been using the term grind now, shine later. Can you explain what that means when it is applied in this situation and what you want to build from that.
COACH AMAKA AGUGUA-HAMILTON: I was surprised at how quickly they bought in, to be honest. I do believe, if you have a genuine relationship with people and you invest in people, they’re going to buy in, and they’re going to believe in the vision. Even though we only have two first years on our roster, everyone — kind of when a new coach comes in, everyone is almost like a freshman again, right?
They have more experience, their bodies are more ready and things like that, but everyone has to kind of start from scratch and learn. So some of them, like Sam said, we have a lot of leaders on the team, and some were trying to lead, but they’re trying to learn at the same time. So there was that little growth period, and now that they’re understanding the system better, you’re seeing so many leaders emerge, and that’s great to see. We talk about grind now, shine later, because we just want to focus on the work. We don’t want to focus on are we going to win a championship are we going to do this?
Of course we have goals and we want to celebrate small victories along the way, but just focus on the things we can control. Let’s get better today. Let’s get better in this practice in this moment. Let’s grow, and the results will take care of themselves. We have enough talent, and I’m confident I can put them in positions to be successful, myself and my staff, but just focus on the things we can control. That’s kind of where that grind now, shine later comes from.
At the end of the day, I’ve been so blessed with these players. They have been great to coach. They come in every day, work hard. What we do, every drill, every shoot — it could be a shooting drill, whatever it is, there’s a winner and a loser to everything we do. There’s a competitive side to everything we do. Changing that mentality to a winning mentality also goes in with the grinding part of it.
So now you see people that are getting upset — even if it’s a little shooting drill, if we lose that, they’re like, oh, they’re mad at themselves or whatever, and you just see that mentality changing, and it’s changed honestly. It’s changed already. Cam just alluded to it, there’s a winning expectation, and there’s a winning mindset. All of that is based on the work that we’ve been putting in.
THE MODERATOR: I can see on Cam’s face you were talking about her because you were like just mad about losing. I see it all over your face. (Laughter). You have four, five returners coming back. So when you’re looking at the starters and just how you’re able to build on that, I know you’ve talked about your philosophy. You mentioned what the grit and the grind looks like for you guys. You mentioned too we have the talent. At the end of the day, we have the talent to compete in this league. For the people that are not here, can you further express what they are and what they can be and the impact that they need to make in the season?
AMAKA AGUGUA-HAMILTON: I mean, I would probably go down our whole roster. Well, these two, they’ve been an integral part of that buy-in and culture shift and all that. They’ve been great leaders, and they come in with great attitudes and things like that, and they’re talented players, obviously. We have Taylor Valladay, who comes in, she’s a bulldog out there. She’s so tough on both sides of the ball, and she just brings that grit. You need somebody like that. She starts — everything starts with her on defense and trickles down. Offensively she pushes the tempo, and she’s been a great leader. She’s one of our captains as well.
Mir, Mir is one of the most athletic kids probably that’s come through here, and she just does things on the court that you don’t even really teach. So the way that she can effect our defense just by contesting a shot or rebounding and effect our offense by mismatches and things like that, she brings a lot to the team. But you can go all the way down. We’ve had so many people contribute. I think London Clarkson has gotten way better. She’s versatile, finishes either hand, is very vocal, helps our team when we’re getting into ruts and things like that. She helps us, along with these two, get out of that. She’s another one. McKenna Dale, she’s going to be most improved. A lot of people look at her and think she’s a flat out shooter, but she’s getting to the rim more and doing thing outside of her comfort zone, because we like to utilize our versatility, so we push kids outside their comfort zone, and she’s flourished with that.
Our two first years, they’re growing every day. One is a point guard, Yonta Vaughn is a point guard and she is getting better. Cady Pauley, we call her C.P., she’s becoming more confident and coming out of her shell. She’s a lights-out shooter but can handle the ball some. So we have everybody that is bringing different things. Alexia Smith, from Minnesota, she brings defense, she brings downhill plays, she’s stretching the floor now a little more with her shot. I just — Carole Miller. I could really talk about everybody. I think she’s going to be one of the most improved. Before I got here, what I heard, she was more of just a shooter. Now she’s bringing the ball down the court, she is attacking, she is utilizing her versatility. Same thing with Kaydan Lawson. Same thing, she’s a three level scorer.
I probably left somebody out, but I tell them all the time, I told them in the circle, I think every single person in our circle, we have 11 kids, everybody can contribute to our success. That’s an awesome thing to have. Now I can play with lineups. We need an offensive lineup, we need a defensive lineup, we need a more athletic lineup, we need whatever it is, I can play around and put people in position to be successful, because everyone is kind of growing together and getting better.
THE MODERATOR: I know a lot of analysts out there are saying thank you for helping me build my board. Thank you so much for your time. Ladies, best of luck this season. Can’t wait to cover you guys.
Stay tuned to Streaking the Lawn as we draw closer to the start of a new era for the UVA women’s basketball program and, if you’re local to Charlottesville, be sure to get to the Blue-White game this Saturday which starts at 1:30 at JPJ and is right before the men’s scrimmage.