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UVA women’s basketball looking to outperform national preseason expectations

The ‘Hoos are hunting their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2018.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Athletics

We’re exactly one week from tip-off of the Virginia Cavaliers women’s basketball regular season, as the ‘Hoos host Maryland Eastern Shore next Wednesday at John Paul Jones Arena.

Around Charlottesville, the excitement for year two of the Coach Mox era is palpable. But the “Blue Ribbon Panel” of head coaches and other insiders at ACC media day last week in Charlotte apparently aren’t feeling it, instead predicting UVA to finish 10th in the conference this winter.

The full predicted order of finish is as follows, with first place votes in parentheses.

  1. Virginia Tech (45)
  2. Notre Dame (14)
  3. North Carolina (1)
  4. Louisville (1)
  5. Florida State
  6. Miami
  7. Duke
  8. NC State
  9. Syracuse
  10. Virginia
  11. Clemson
  12. Georgia Tech
  13. Boston College
  14. Wake Forest
  15. Pitt

Although Virginia finished tied for 13th last season with a 4-14 conference record, they retained their top three scorers (two of which weren’t healthy for the majority of ACC play) and brought in a host of exciting talent this offseason, including five-star guard Kymora Johnson.

During their media availability yesterday, the Cavaliers I talked to weren’t worried about the haters.

“Our word this year is ‘unexpected,’” graduate center Taylor Lauterbach said. “I feel like we’re going to play with a chip on our shoulder… [The poll] doesn’t reflect our team and I don’t think people are putting enough respect on our name. So, I think we’re excited to show that off this year.”

Sophomore guard Yonta Vaughn echoed that sentiment. “Obviously we want to be higher, but everybody has always put us in a low position, so it’s time to just go out there and show them what we can do.”

“At the end of the day,” senior guard Alexia Smith said, “we know who we are as a team, and we know what we can bring as a team. So, we’re just going into the season doing the things that we know we can do.”

Virginia hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2018, but the ‘Hoos have their sights set on March this year. The ACC has been the nation’s toughest women’s basketball conference for the past few seasons, but that challenge also provides a great opportunity for the ‘Hoos. The ACC has sent at least eight teams to the Big Dance for five consecutive seasons, meaning Virginia won’t need to outperform expectations by much to accomplish their goals.

“The team goal I have for us is to make a really good run in the NCAA Tournament,” graduate forward and 2023-24 captain London Clarkson said. “I haven’t been so that’s one of my biggest goals.”

Lauterbach, who transferred to UVA this offseason from Kansas State, is hoping for another trip to the tournament after an appearance with the Wildcats in 2022. “The NCAA Tournament is always a goal. I’ve been there before with my previous team and it’s just a really special place and I would love to go there again this year.”

The key to Virginia ending their tournament drought may be health. Last season’s second and third-leading scorers, Sam Brunelle and Mir Mclean, are recovering from season-ending injuries suffered last winter, and it’s unclear how big an impact they will have early in the season. On top of that, freshman guard Olivia McGhee is recovering from a leg injury suffered in the Cavaliers’ Blue-White Scrimmage on October 14th and Paris Clark, a sophomore transfer from Arizona, is dealing with an ankle sprain.

“Paris sprained her ankle,” Coach Mox said in her press conference on Tuesday. “It’s nothing crazy, she’ll be back in a couple weeks but that’s a couple weeks when we’re starting the season. So, she might miss the first couple games. That messes up the rotation a little bit, but hopefully by the end of this month we’ll have just about everybody back.”

In the meantime, Coach Mox is preaching a “next woman up mentality. People got to step up. We’ve got to weather the storm until we get the full 14 back.”

If everything comes together, the ‘Hoos certainly have the right mix of talent to succeed come March. Great guard play is paramount in the madness of the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, and Virginia has more than their fair share of talent at the guard position.

“We have a lot of guards,” Coach Mox said. “And they all have their place where they can help us. Guard play is huge and if we can be deep in that spot, that’s going to help us be deep this season. My style is pretty up-tempo, so you got to be deep in that spot.”

Before Virginia gets started on their journey toward their NCAA Tournament goals, fans have one final chance to get a sneak-peek of the squad this Thursday when Virginia hosts Pittsburgh-Johnstown in an exhibition game at 6:00 p.m. in JPJ.