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Sam Brunelle, UVA women’s basketball showed ‘heart’ in upset of Tar Heels

The veteran forward helped lead the ‘Hoos to victory over No. 20 UNC.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 11 Women’s - Virginia at NC State Photo by Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In front of a raucous John Paul Jones Arena crowd, the Virginia Cavaliers got a huge lift from graduate forward Sam Brunelle in Sunday’s 81-66 upset win over then-No. 20 North Carolina.

It’s been an up-and-down season for Brunelle, but against UNC the fan-favorite from Ruckersville finished with 14 points (5-9 FG, 4-5 3PT), 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals in 30 minutes of action — exactly the spark Virginia needed to secure its second victory over a ranked opponent in the span of a week.

“We played that entire game with heart,” Brunelle said postgame on ACC Network’s Nothing But Net. “I know that we’ve had some slow starts here and there — they go on runs, we go on runs — but at the end of the day, we played with heart for 40 minutes, and I think that’s what really made the difference.”

Brunelle hadn’t scored in double figures since Virginia’s December 3rd win at La Salle, but during a second-quarter 21-to-5 run that saw the ‘Hoos erase a thirteen-point Tar Heels’ lead, it was their 2023-24 captain who led the way. Brunelle erupted for a team-high eight points in the second quarter, including a massive pair of back-to-back triples that sent JPJ into a frenzy.

“I’ve been in a shooting slump for, probably, months now,” Brunelle said in her postgame press conference. “So, to have a day like today just brought me a lot of confidence. And it wasn’t just the shots going in, but my teammates were uplifting the whole entire game.”

Brunelle’s passion on the court always energizes the Virginia faithful, but with a season-high 5,690 fans in attendance on Sunday, John Paul Jones was rocking at uncharted levels as the ‘Hoos pulled the upset.

“It was electric in there,” said Coach Mox in her postgame press conference. “I just want to say thank you to Wahoo nation… There were butts in seats everywhere and we really fed off of that. It allowed us to be confident in ourselves… and [I’m] really proud that we did that in front of the fans, protected our home court… [and] played with pride.”

A 2019 McDonald’s All-American, Brunelle has been hamstrung by injuries throughout her collegiate career — including a foot injury that cut her 2022-23 season short and delayed the start of her 2023-24 season. On Sunday, in a turn of events, it was Virginia’s current leading scorer Camryn Taylor who was sidelined with a left knee injury, and Brunelle was more than ready to step up in her absence.

“Sam, she’s struggled so much with injuries and just trying to fight through and stay positive,” Coach Mox said. “She’s just really had a resilient attitude… and she told me last night, she was like ‘Coach, we’re winning this game tomorrow, we’re gonna bounce back.’… And she left it all out on the floor and hit four threes… so Sam really showed up big and fought through all the stuff that she’s been going through.”

Brunelle’s resurgence was part of a special weekend for the ‘Hoos. In addition to the big win, the women’s program celebrated its 50th Anniversary by welcoming back dozens of former players and coaches during a ceremony at halftime. The team also got the chance to hear from some of the Virginia legends on Saturday after practice.

“It was just really powerful to hear their stories and to know that we just need to take a step back, take their advice, and use it today — and that’s what we did,” Brunelle said.

If the ‘Hoos — who have won two of their last three contests after a slow start to conference play — have a healthy and confident Brunelle back in the fold, they are not a squad that upcoming ACC foes want to see on the schedule.

“Hopefully,” Brunelle said, “moving forward we’ll have a lot more consistency with being that team that you can’t sleep on.”

With momentum on their side, the ‘Hoos travel to Blacksburg Thursday for their first of two matchups this season with No. 17 Virginia Tech (16-4, 7-2 ACC) at 6 p.m. on ACC Network.