As the 2022-23 season went on, injuries and attrition took their toll on the University of Virginia women’s basketball team. By early February, UVA had only eight available players, one of whom was slowed by her own knee problems.
But if the Wahoos limped to the finish line, that shouldn’t overshadow all they accomplished in their first season under Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, better known as “Coach Mox.” The Hoos finished 15-15 overall, ending a string of four straight losing seasons, and drew enthusiastic crowds at John Paul Jones Arena.
With a full complement of players, the Cavaliers posted an 11-0 record in non-conference play, and in late December they earned a national ranking – No. 25 in the USA Today Coaches Poll – for the first time since November 2011.
But their momentum stalled. Virginia lost two of its top three players, forwards Mir McLean and Sam Brunelle, to season-ending injuries in January, and guard Carole Miller later left the program. Still, the Hoos continued to battle. Their final win of the season, against No. 22 North Carolina State on Feb. 12, was their first victory over a ranked opponent in nearly six years.
UVA received a postseason invitation to participate in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, but turned it down, citing a lack of healthy players.
“We got derailed by injuries, obviously, but we kept fighting and I think we showed some resilience, some mental toughness and physical toughness down the stretch,” Agugua-Hamilton said in her John Paul Jones Arena office. “But we were just banged up. I don’t like the way it ended because I thought we could have done some more things in the WNIT, but that was the hand that we were dealt. But I’m really proud of what we accomplished in year one. The biggest thing, I guess, is bringing the energy back to women’s basketball in Charlottesville.”
Virginia’s final home game, against No. 9 Duke on Feb. 19, drew a crowd of 6,378. Not since November 2011 had the Cavaliers drawn that many fans for a day game that didn’t involve a field trip for schoolchildren.
“That’s one of my favorite things from the season, one of my favorite memories,” Agugua-Hamilton said, “seeing the city of Charlottesville and surrounding communities just get behind our team. I think attendance and energy commitment to our program grew tremendously in just this one year. I just I love it. I think Wahoo Nation is really behind us. The support helps. It was a tough environment for teams to come in here and play, and you need that. You need that home-court advantage.”
Agugua-Hamilton came to UVA from Missouri State, where in three seasons as head coach she posted a 74-15 record. At Virginia, she took over a program that had posted an overall record of 30-63 in four seasons under Tina Thompson. But Agugua-Hamilton went into her first season confident her team had enough talent to succeed, and before the injuries to McLean (12.2 points per game, 9.6 rebounds) and Brunelle (11.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg), the Hoos backed up her predictions.
“I think it’s human nature to wonder what we could have been if we had all 11 players healthy the whole year,” Agugua-Hamilton said, “but I never really go ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda,’ just because that’s what happened. And when you’re a faithful person like me, a God-fearing person, you know it happened for a reason. So I just try to control what I can control and make sure we can be better in the future.”
The Hoos experienced considerable adversity this season, “but I tell our players all the time, this game is going to help set them up for life,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “It’s a microcosm of life. So I welcome the adversity, and it’s great for them to learn coping mechanisms and tools to persevere when things aren’t going your way. So it was an up-and-down season, and it was a lot [to deal with]. But instilling the culture is what I wanted to do from day one and standing on my core values and standards and expectations also added to the adversity.”
Several times during the season, Agugua-Hamilton suspended players for violations of team rules, making a depleted roster even thinner. “But at the end of the day, I think the kids, especially the ones that are coming in and the ones that are returning, understand the culture and want to be a part of that,” Agugua-Hamilton said.
“I thought everyone was pretty bought-in when things were good, when we’re 12-0, we’re rolling, we’re winning more than we’ve won in years. But when you hit adversity, that’s when you start to see who’s really bought in,” she said.
The Future Waits
Of the players who were on the roster at season’s end, forward McKenna Dale is out of eligibility and guard Taylor Valladay has entered the transfer portal. The other eight – McLean, Brunelle, Camryn Taylor, London Clarkson, Alexia Smith, Kaydan Lawson, Yonta Vaughn and Cady Pauley – are planning to return, Agugua-Hamilton said.
Two high school seniors from Central Virginia – Olivia McGhee, who lives in Louisa County, and Kymora Johnson, who attends St. Anne’s-Belfield – signed with the Cavaliers in November. The 6-foot-2 McGhee played for three years at Louisa County High before transferring to IMG Academy in Florida for her senior season. The 5-foot-8 Johnson is a McDonald’s All-American who recently won the 3-point contest at that all-star event.
Brunelle, a graduate of William Monroe High School in Stanardsville, has much of Greene County rooting for her every time Virginia plays at JPJ, and adding McGhee and Johnson will only raise the program’s profile locally.
“Keeping hometown kids home is always something that I want to do,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “I think there’s a pride in putting Virginia on your chest when you grow up here and you understand what this program has been and where we’re trying to take it, so that’s a big thing, but then also for our fan-base situation. I’m excited to see our fan base continue to grow, because I just know what it can be.”
Virginia is likely to add four or five transfers for 2023-24, Agugua-Hamilton said. “There’s good options [in the portal], and there’s lots of options that want UVA, so it’s a good thing.”
Adding size to the frontcourt is a priority. The tallest Cavaliers this season were Taylor, Brunelle and Clarkson, all listed at 6-foot-2. Brunelle made a team-high 34 3-pointers, but Taylor and Clarkson operated more in the low post. Taylor, a second-team All-ACC selection, led the Hoos in scoring (13.9 ppg) and blocked shots (23). Clarkson averaged 6.9 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.
“We have great post players, first of all,” Agugua-Hamilton said, “but we need to bring in that big center. Cam played great there, London played great there, and Sam even played 5 for us at times. They all held their own, of course, but it would really help them and open up things for them more if we had that big 6-4, 6-5 post player or something like that.”
McLean is 5-foot-11 but plays much taller. She was ranked third among ACC players in rebounding when she suffered a serious knee injury Jan. 8 at N.C. State. When she’ll be cleared to play again is uncertain.
“When you have an injury like that, you’ve got to stick to the protocol, and it’s a really rigorous rehab,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “But Mir’s attacking it like a champ. Doctors are really impressed with what she’s doing. So we’ll just see, but she definitely is going to come back and play basketball.”
Brunelle, who transferred from Notre Dame to UVA last season, is recovering well from a foot injury that required surgery, Agugua-Hamilton said, and she’s “motivated at an all-time high right now. This is her last year of eligibility. Yes, she wants to play pro and things like that. But she really wants this to be, like the saying goes, a last year, best year type thing. So she’s working really hard on all fronts to make sure that she’s a complete player and can play a full season at an elite level.”
The Future Is Bright
Lawson, a 6-foot wing, had an up-and-down season, in part because she wasn’t 100% healthy.
“She’s really been struggling with some knee issues, and that kind of plagued her through this season,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “So the days that she played great, she was feeling good physically. And then there were some times where she just really had trouble moving and you could actually see it in the way she played. That kind of messed with her confidence a little bit, but once she gets healthy after having surgery in the offseason, I think that’ll help her.”
The coaching staff has met with the returning players this month to map out their offseason goals.
“Overall, every player knows where they need to get better, and they know they’re committed to, in this offseason, working on their deficiencies and making their strengths even better and just having confidence in their game,” Agugua-Hamilton said.
“I think what’s going to be really good [in 2023-24] is having a bigger number of kids on the team. That’s going to add more of a competitive spirit. This year when we started having injuries and we got down to low numbers, I think we got a little complacent, because everybody had to play and there wasn’t that [mentality of], ‘Oh, somebody’s on my heels, let me really earn my spot.’ So I think our returners want to make sure they’re in a really good position to continue to contribute. There’s a lot of things we need to work on individually and as a team in the summer, but they’re all very, very excited to do that.”
The Cavaliers played a challenging conference schedule, finishing 4-14 in league play. The ACC sent eight teams to the NCAA tournament, the most of any conference. They included all four of the teams with which UVA played home-and-home series: Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, which has advanced to the Final Four.
“I think I came in on one of the tougher years, for sure,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “I came in with this sense that this is a competitive league, where every game is going to be a dogfight, and that’s what it was.”
For the returning players who are healthy, the focus this spring is strength and conditioning, Agugua-Hamilton said. “We were pretty depleted there at the end, and we’ve got to get our bodies together. And then also just optional shooting. A lot of them actually are just shooting with assistant coaches, working on parts of their game.
“After the Final Four, we’ll start some individual workouts for the month of April, and then they go home after finals in May. When they come back for summer, we’ll really get into it. You don’t want to do too much right now, because you don’t want to overload their bodies and break them down. You want to just be able to build them back up. We’ve got to build strength back up. We’ve got to get to injury prevention. We’ve got to work on things in the weight room.”
In 2021-22, when the Hoos finished 5-22, they averaged 1,643 fans at home games. The average at JPJ rose to 3,489 this season, and “we can definitely grow that,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “Obviously, you’ve got to win. You’ve got to win at a high level. People want to come to see a team that’s winning. But I just love where the energy is, and I know where it’s going.”
Director of News Content VirginiaSports.com
June 8, 2023