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“Culture wins” for UVA women’s basketball in Coach Mox’s second season

On the back of their culture, he ‘Hoos are hoping to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018

Photo courtesy of Virginia Athletics

We’re three weeks away from tip-off of the Virginia Cavaliers women’s basketball season, and Coach Mox’s 2023-24 squad is looking to take another big step forward in year two of her tenure at UVA.

“We had a great start [last season], the best start you could have — we were 12 and 0,” Coach Mox said before the Cavaliers’ first official practice a few weeks ago. “Hopefully we can do that again, but obviously we just had so much adversity with injuries and the bottom kind of fell out there.”

While Virginia lost fifteen of their final eighteen games last winter, there was plenty to be encouraged about, including an early February upset over then No. 22 NC State, marking the program’s first victory over a ranked opponent since 2017. Now, a busy offseason has resulted in a reloaded roster, and UVA is ready to compete in the ACC and perhaps for an NCAA Tournament appearance for the first time since 2018.

“We were in every game [last season] but we couldn’t close out some of those games,” Coach Mox said. “So, there’s a lot to be proud of… as far as the turnaround, but there’s a lot to just keep us hungry… So now it’s like we’re playing with a chip on our shoulder everyday in practice, competing with that refuse-to-lose mentality and not being okay with those results.”

Much of the excitement around the UVA women’s program stems from the intriguing mix of newcomers and returning players on the roster, as well as the great culture that Coach Mox and her staff are trying to establish in the locker room.

“I love where our culture is at, and obviously everybody knows I think culture wins — I truly believe that,” Coach Mox explained. “This group has been a breath of fresh air, their camaraderie on and off the court has been fun to watch… and just to see our culture thrive.”

The Cavaliers have a perfect mix of young talent and established vets for establishing the culture on which Coach Mox puts so much emphasis. Virginia returns its three leading scorers from last season, Camryn Taylor, Sam Brunelle, and Mir McLean, as well as five others who played key roles on last year’s squad and who can provide valuable leadership in the locker room.

“The eight that are returning, they defend the culture, they understand the culture, understand expectations, standards, all that, our family,” Coach Mox said.

Six newcomers were brought into the fold as well — veteran transfers Jillian Brown, Taylor Lauterbach, and Paris Clark and exciting freshmen Kymora Johnson, Olivia McGhee, and Edessa Noyan.

Coach Mox is pleased with how everyone is gelling so far. She says “we have a lot of different personalities, but they all go well together… You might see one kid with somebody one day, and then they’re with somebody [else] the other day. So, there’s no real cliques like that, and I think that helps our chemistry on the court too.”

As a Virginia native who graduated from Oakton High School in Vienna, Coach Mox knows the storied history of women’s basketball at Virginia — the Cavaliers made the NCAA Tournament twenty-four times between 1984 and 2010, reaching the Sweet 16 twelve times, and earning trips to the Final Four in 1990, ’91, and ’92 — and recognizes that in-state recruiting is paramount in returning the program to the heights it once reached with consistency.

“I think some of those kids that grew up here know this is a storied program,” Coach Mox said. “They see some of the history, they were here for some of the history, or their parents were, and they see the banners in the gym. So, I think once you get those Virginia kids, they have a sense of pride. These hometown kids are coming here because it’s Virginia, along with they love the culture, they love us, the team and all that. There’s something to be said about playing for Virginia when you’re from the state.”

The ’Hoos tapped into the plethora of in-state talent this offseason, enrolling hometown freshmen Kymora Johnson and Olivia McGhee. Johnson, a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American who attended St. Anne’s-Belfield High School in Charlottesville, looked great at the Blue-White scrimmage on Saturday. She had 10 points in the intrasquad scrimmage and showed off her ability to shoot from beyond the arc as well as push the pace in transition, proving herself capable of being a focal point on offense this season.

McGhee, another highly touted recruit from Louisa, VA, suffered an injury in the Blue-White scrimmage, but will hopefully play a central role in the program for years to come.

On Johnson, Coach Mox was impressed even before she flashed on Saturday, explaining that “she gets it, can score at all three levels, [and] plays defense… She’s the type of kid, a hometown kid, that you want to stay home because a point guard that can do all those things is only going to help the program get back to the glory days.”

With a winning culture being established within the program and women’s basketball taking off in popularity across the country, the Charlottesville community is beginning to rally around women’s hoops again at UVA. Average attendance at John Paul Jones Arena was way up during the 2022-23 season and excitement is continuing to grow.

“Hopefully, we get to sell out one of these games,” Coach Mox said with a smile. “But I love our fan base. Just walking around in the community… we have people coming up [saying] ‘Coach, we’re just so excited for the season. We got our season tickets.’ There’s just such a buzz for women’s basketball right now in this community, and I think everybody’s been craving that for a long time.”