Year one under Head Coach Amaka ‘Mox’ Agugua-Hamilton was a step in the right direction for the Virginia Cavaliers’ women’s basketball program. After a 5-22 record in 2021-22, the ‘Hoos started their 2022-23 campaign with 12-straight wins, earning themselves an appearance in the USA Today Coaches poll for the first time since 2011.
Unfortunately, due to a handful of injuries and a historically tough ACC schedule, the Cavaliers’ momentum stalled once conference play began. Nonetheless, Coach Mox’s arrival has reinvigorated the program and Virginia is poised to take another huge step forward this winter.
With the start of the season less than a month away, we’re looking at who’s back and who Virginia has brought in to fill out their 2023-24 roster as the ‘Hoos look to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018.
Injuries plagued the Cavaliers at the end of last season, drastically shortening their rotation and even causing the ‘Hoos to turn down a Women’s NIT invite. Virginia now has 14 (mostly) healthy bodies to work with and is talented from top to bottom. Everyone has a legitimate case to be made for minutes, although the rotation will certainly have to be trimmed as Coach Mox figures out what works. That newfound depth will be vital since Coach Mox wants to play at a faster pace than they were able to last season with so few opportunities for rest.
The depth comes in the form of eight returning players from last season and six newcomers that Coach Mox has brought into the program — three via the transfer portal and three exciting freshman recruits.
The returning core
Virginia returns each of its top three leading scores from last season — Camryn Taylor, Mir McLean, and Sam Brunelle — and a host of key rotation pieces who can contribute on the court and help instill Coach Mox’s culture.
Taylor, a 6’2 fifth year forward, averaged 13.9 points and 6.2 rebounds last season and led the team with 23 blocked shots, earning her All-ACC second-team honors. She’s a prolific inside scorer who the ‘Hoos will lean on heavily this season, especially due to the questionable health status of McLean and Brunelle.
Taylor should be the betting favorite to lead the squad in scoring again this season, but Virginia needs her to stay on the floor if they’re going to see any improvement in the win column — Taylor averaged 3.5 fouls per game and fouled out a whopping six times last season.
McLean, Virginia’s second-leading scorer, suffered a season-ending knee injury on January 8th against NC State. Before that, however, the 5’11 combo guard/forward who began her collegiate career at UConn was averaging 12.2 points and 9.6 rebounds while posting five double-doubles in just 15 games played. McLean has a high motor and could sneakily be one of the most impactful players in the ACC this season if she’s healthy.
Yet Virginia’s best player this season could very well end up being Sam Brunelle. The hometown hero was at one point the #1 player in her high school recruiting class but spent three injury-riddled seasons at Notre Dame before returning to Charlottesville to finish her collegiate career. Brunelle averaged 11 points and four rebounds per game last season on 46% shooting from the floor and 40% from beyond the arc before a foot injury put an early end to her season.
Fortunately, with a year of eligibility remaining, Brunelle decided to run it back at UVA for one final season. While she has yet to suit up for practice, she is expected to be ready for the opener. Brunelle’s health is one of the biggest question marks surrounding this squad — the Cavaliers badly need her production and ability to space the floor as a stretch-forward.
All five of the remaining returnees — Yonta Vaughn, Kaydan Lawson, Alexia Smith, Cady Pauley, and London Clarkson — saw significant playing time last season, but their roles are somewhat undefined in this year’s much deeper rotation.
Lawson, Smith, and Clarkson are all established vets in the program. Lawson, a 6’0 senior guard, started the most games out of the three, averaging 5.6 points and 4.5 rebounds. Smith, who spent two seasons at Minnesota before transferring to Virginia last offseason, is a 5’8 senior guard who posted a nearly identical 5.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game.
Clarkson got the least amount of playing time out of the bunch but shined as an interior scorer. The 6’2 graduate student, who was named a 2023-24 team captain, posted 6.9 points per game on 57% shooting last season. Lawson and Smith could find themselves starting some games this season, and all three should be important pieces of the rotation.
Vaughn and Pauley were freshmen last season, but both made immediate impacts. Yonta Vaughn’s 79 assists were 2nd on the team, and she had a 1.88 assist-to-turnover ratio. She’s a great floor general with an underrated jumper that should lead to a higher shooting percentage this season. Vaughn, who hails from District Heights, MD., is one of the biggest breakout candidates on the roster but finds herself in a very crowded backcourt.
Cady Pauley is also part of the backcourt discussion. Although she went just 22-80 from beyond the arc last season, Pauley can clearly stroke it. The 5’11 sharpshooter hit four long balls against Clemson in February. While Pauley might not initially be a huge part of the rotation, if she starts consistently hitting from deep it’ll be hard to keep her out of it.
Coach Mox was busy in the transfer portal this offseason and enrolls a star-studded freshman class, all together totaling six new additions to this year’s roster.
Through the portal, the ‘Hoos added sophomore Paris Clark, junior Jillian Brown, and graduate student Taylor Lauterbach. Clark, a 5’8 guard from the Bronx, spent her freshman season at Arizona after earning New York State Gatorade Player of the Year honors and being named a 2022 McDonald’s All-American following her senior season of high school ball. The highly touted recruit dealt with injuries at the beginning of her freshman year as a Wildcat, but her role increased as the season went on. Clark is an exciting talent who can score from anywhere on the floor and clamp down on the defensive end as well.
Brown was also a top-50 recruit coming out of high school before committing to Northwestern, where she played her first two collegiate seasons. The 5’10 guard brings a lot of experience to the Cavaliers’ rotation, as she accumulated 34 starts in 57 career games, averaging 8.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.0 assists as a freshman and 6.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1 assist as a sophomore.
Lauterbach rounds out the transfers, joining Virginia after three seasons at Kansas State. The 6’7 center hails from Appleton, W.I., and brings some much-needed height to a fairly small Virginia rotation. Lauterbach was never a central part of the K-State rotation but can be a force on the boards and a rim protector as a depth piece for UVA.
Virginia’s final three additions come in the form of several super exciting freshmen, the most promising of which being five-star Kymora Johnson. The Charlottesville native attended St. Anne’s-Belfied where she was a two-time Gatorade State Player of the Year, two-time Max Preps Virginia Player of the Year, and a 2023 McDonald’s All-American.
Johnson can get it done in a variety of ways, as she averaged 23.9 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 4.4 steals per game her senior season. She’s an elite playmaker and can flat-out shoot the rock, as evidenced by her victory at the McDonald’s All-American game three-point shooting contest. Johnson will be one of four former McDonald’s All-Americans on the roster, including Clark, Brunelle, and McLean, after Virginia had failed to recruit a McDonald’s All-American for over a decade prior to Coach Mox’s arrival.
6’2 guard Olivia McGhee and forward Edessa Noyan round out the class. McGhee is another Virginia product but spent her senior season at IMG Academy in Florida. She’s a 4-star recruit who earned 2021 Central VA Girls Basketball Player of the Year and was a 2022 McDonald’s All-America nominee. As a very tall guard, McGhee adds versatility to the ‘Hoos, and like Kymora Johnson, she is excellent from beyond the arc. Noyan is an international prospect, hailing from Södertälje, Sweden. At 6’3, she is effective scoring from inside and at the high post and brings a lot of experience from playing against older competition.
Assuming everyone is healthy and ready to go, the frontcourt starters will almost certainly be Mir McLean, Sam Brunelle, and Camryn Taylor. Behind them, London Clarkson should be able to build off her solid 2023-24 campaign and provide a scoring threat off the bench. Lauterbach also figures to be a part of the frontcourt rotation when the Cavaliers want to roll with a bigger lineup. Noyan might not see a lot of playing time early on but could work her way into the lineup as time goes on.
The backcourt, however, is much harder to predict. Alexia Smith, Kaydan Lawson, and Yonta Vaughn each got lots of playing time last season for the ‘Hoos, while Jillian Brown started 34 games in her two seasons at Northwestern. Paris Clark, Kymora Johnson, and Olivia McGhee don’t have much experience at this level, but they’re exciting young players with extraordinary potential.
Brown seems to be the most likely candidate of the bunch to earn a starting job based on her experience and production at Northwestern. Beyond her, it’s really a coin flip who Coach Mox will roll out in November, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a variety of starting lineups utilized over the first few weeks. I’ll take Yonta Vaughn to get the first shot in the starting five. She’s a pass-first point guard who flashed at times last season, and her ability to get the ball into the hands of Virginia’s experienced frontcourt should be crucial.
Behind them, Smith and Lawson will certainly get plenty of run early on as established vets, but the young trio of Clark, Johnson, and McGhee is the x-factor for this squad. If one of them emerges as a star, the ‘Hoos should be able to make a legit run at an NCAA Tournament berth.