Coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton has assembled a roster that Tony Bennett would surely love: she’s only got 11 players. Heck, there are more people listed as coaching staff than there are players. It would appear that the rotation, if more by necessity than coaching prerogative, will be tight.
The theme for these Virginia Cavaliers is that change is good. I’m not going to rehash the Tina Thompson era. Thompson is WNBA royalty and she seemed like a home-run hire four years ago, but let’s just say that her stint here was unsuccessful. Agugua-Hamilton seems much more the home-run hire and she has completely turned the expectations for this program around.
This just about says it all:
Two years ago, the women played just five games as COVID-19 knocked the program out. Last year, the Cavaliers won just two ACC games. And now, six months after being hired, Agugua-Hamilton has the team on the NCAA bubble. I think the Virginia Slims slogan applies to the ‘Hoos: You’ve come a long way baby.
The team lost graduate students Amandine Toi and Eleah Parker and a whopping six other players, either due to transfer or who have left the program, and the team feels completely new to me. There are only two UVA products on the roster – Carole Miller and Kaydan Lawson – and a pair of freshmen in Yonta Vaughan and Cady Pauley. The other seven women on the team are transfers, including perhaps the most significant recruit of the last decade, local star Sam Brunelle, who was at one time considered the #1 recruit in the country.
Agugua-Hamilton has hit the ground running in her half-year on Grounds, almost as if she was living the credo expressed in Bob Dylan’s The Times They are A-Changing:
You better start swimming
or you’ll sink like a stone,
for the times they are a-changing
In addition to bringing Brunelle back home, Agugua-Hamilton signed freshmen Yonta Vaughan (a top 75 recruit) and Cady Pauley (who scored an eye-popping 3000 points in her scholastic career). For the 2023 season, Agugua-Hamilton has signed newly-minted five star and top-25 player Kymora Johnson and the top-50 Olivia McGhee.
With that all said, let’s meet this team.
I have no idea of how the minutes are going to shake out under Coach Mox (a blessedly short nickname and one that is much easier to type) but I do know that Taylor Valladay will be running the point. She’s a Marquette transfer, a former top 250 recruit, and was Virginia’s most improved player last year. She struggled early in the season, but came on strong in conference play, averaging over 11 points per game (almost twice her out-of-conference numbers) while setting five career highs in an eight-game streak.
Early on against George Washington Valladay had one of the most disastrous trips to the free-throw line I’ve ever seen: she was experimenting with her stroke and had a little hitch in the motion which suckered the other team into lane violations. She won two. Which meant she had four free throws, and she bricked them all. But a month later against Virginia Tech, Valladay would go 10 – 13 from the line. She is also flat-out tough. Against NC State, Valladay twisted her ankle and was in visible pain. She really couldn’t walk, but in a very Willis Reed-manner, she could run and ended up playing the entire second quarter.
I would presume the low blocks are going to be manned by Brunelle and Camryn Taylor. Sam Brunelle is a Notre Dame transfer and she’s a former McDonalds’ All-American, a one-time #1, and she’s played with the U16, U17 and U18 national teams. She made the all-freshman All-ACC team her first year, but her career stalled after losing her sophomore season due to injury. As evidence of the increased expectations for both Brunelle individually and the Cavaliers collectively, she was just named to the Katrina McClain Presentation (for the nation’s best power forward) watch list. Notably, Brunelle does have two years of eligibility.
Camryn Taylor, who transferred from Marquette with Valladay, started the season very strongly but she struggled once the ACC slate hit. Taylor had to take a leave of absence from the team after just 12 games, but she returns for her COVID-19 super senior year. Taylor is effective in the low block, but she’s just 6’2” and going up against Virginia Tech’s Liz Kitly and Georgia Tech’s Nerea Hermosa (both 6’5”) was a challenge. There’s plenty of height in the ACC.
Where it gets interesting is figuring out what wings/guards are going to start. Junior Mir McLean is a former top 25 recruit who went to Connecticut, couldn’t crack the starting rotation, and was granted an immediate, emergency transfer mid-season. McLean in high school and on the UConn website is listed as a wing, but she played the four for the team last year and was the team’s leading rebounder despite being just 5’11”. If she can crash the boards with this same success this season, UVA will be a formidable rebounding team. McClean also has two years of eligibility remaining.
Another option for guard/wing is two-year starter Carole Miller. On signing day she was the country’s #82 prospect per ESPN, but she hasn’t lived up to the hype. She’s smart (an Engineering and Materials Science major) and she plays within herself, but I imagine she’s under heavy pressure to retain her starting assignment.
Virginia has seemingly a lot of backcourt depth this year. Junior Kaydan Lawson was, after Taylor left the team, the first sub off the bench. She is one of those rare Virginia products on this roster. She’s strong, a decent rebounder, plays with a lot of energy, and tries to push the pace, which is what Coach Mox has been preaching since she arrived on Grounds. At this point in her career, she looks to be a career backup.
There’s a trio of newcomers who will be in the mix. Freshman Yonta Vaughan is a top-75 recruit and four-year starter with the acclaimed Bishop McNamara HS just outside of DC. She projects as a point guard, but if Mox is anything like Tony Bennett, she’ll love having another ball handler on the court.
Cady Pauley is the other true freshman on the team and color me intrigued by someone who put up over 3000 points in her high school career. Pauley originally committed to Coach Mox at Missouri State, but followed her to Charlottesville when she was hired. So, I don’t know if she is Missouri Valley Conference quality or ACC caliber, but I’m eager to see her in action.
Coach Mox snagged Minnesota junior guard Alexia Smith from the transfer portal. Smith played sparingly but, like so many of these players, she was also a top-50 prospect coming out of high school.
The last wing on the team is Brown transfer McKenna Dale, now on the team for her second and last year. Dale was a standout in the Ivy League and with Brown, scoring 17 points per game and shooting 38.5% from deep her sophomore year. She was primarily a catch and shoot specialist for the ‘Hoos last season, but if she can hit threes at anything like that percentage, she’ll be the most lethal of subs.
The 11th and final player of the team is Florida State transfer London Clarkson who was a top-100 recruit when she arrived in Tallahassee. Her career did not blossom as expected so she transferred to Charlottesville. Two years ago, she, like McLean, was granted an immediate transfer waiver but got to UVA just as the season was being canceled. She started the season as the sixth player but, with Taylor’s departure, she was thrust into the starting lineup. Eleah Parker’s fitness was questionable and Clarkson was pressed into service as the five and she responded well.
After averaging four points per game throughout the first half of the season, she finished on a roll, scoring in double figures five of the last six games. She’s undersized for a center, but she plays with energy and, despite facing a lot of height, she held her own without getting into foul trouble.
Looking at the ACC
The metaphors abound for the state of the collegiate game after the opening up of the transfer portal and the granting of NIL rights to players. It’s the Wild West, or the Final Frontier. Pick your poison, but the landscape has changed.
A year after Louisville’s Jeff Walz rode transfer Emily Engstler to a Final Four, Walz has re-tooled bringing in two-time All-ACC selection Morgan Jones from Florida State as well as the much-traveled Chrislyn Carr, most recently of Syracuse.
Virginia Tech is in win-now mode with reigning Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley returning, and they’ve stocked up with former Maryland star Ashley Owusu who was a third-team All-American last year. Taylor Soule arrives from Boston College as a two-time All-ACC performer.
The entire ACC is like this, stacked teams reloading. Miami gets the Cavinder twins (along with their five million Tik Tok and Instagram followers) and six of the seven players on the ACC’s Newcomer Watch List are veterans who’ve transferred. Seemingly every team in the ACC reloaded. It is just that, for the first time, it feels like Virginia reloaded right along with everyone else. My personal favorite metaphor for these times is that of a Brave New World and we seemingly have a coach to help us navigate it.
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’
Tipping Off: The Cavaliers take on Pitt in an exhibition game this Thursday at the JPJ. The regular season begins on Monday, November 7th against George Washington. Last year the ‘Hoos went to GW and won. Hoping for a similar outcome this time at home. The game will be featured on the ACC Network.