After failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament last season for the first time in 20 years, the Virginia women's basketball players and coaches looked beyond the court to avoid a repeat of their first non-winning season in 26 years, and their earliest exit from the ACC tournament in six years.
Senior forward Jocelyn Logan-Friend recalls Coach Debbie Ryan corralling the five seniors into a series of preseason meetings during which they read from a book on leadership and had blunt conversations about how each of them would contribute to the turnaround.
Virginia's Jocelyn Logan-Friend (44) and her teammates have meshed this season after spending time soul-searching and talking about leadership.
(Lynn Hey -- AP)
"We did a lot of soul-searching," said Logan-Friend, who graduated from Riverdale Baptist in Upper Marlboro. "Everybody wanted to win games this season. That was consistent across the whole group. What we were trying to do is figure out how best to work together to achieve our goals. We were honest with each other about what we thought and how we felt. Sometimes, we didn't agree. But we came to even ground where we could meet each other halfway and do what's best for the team."
For their efforts, the Cavaliers (20-10) earned an at-large bid and sixth seed in the 64-team tournament. Virginia will open against No. 11 seed and intrastate rival Old Dominion (22-8) today at 7 in Minneapolis.
Virginia can credit its return to the NCAA tournament in part to its performance in the ACC tournament last month, where it advanced to the semifinals against No. 21 North Carolina. The Cavaliers nearly toppled the top-seeded Tar Heels before succumbing, 78-72.
That was with two of the Cavaliers' top players nursing injuries. Senior guard and leading scorer LaTonya Blue and reserve center Siedah Williams have returned to practice and are expected to play in the first-round game.
"We're pleased and proud to be back in the NCAA tournament," Ryan said in a conference call. "Its been a long road to get back here. I'm just proud of the team and players for turning this thing around."
The 6-foot-1 Logan-Friend has contributed to the Cavaliers' recent success with her best season by expanding her role beyond a defensive specialist. She is averaging nine points along with 6.8 rebounds. She says she has also become more of vocal leader on the court.
"I think my teammates depend on me to encourage them when they're down," Logan-Friend said. "Anytime we're in the huddle I'm there to bring energy and excitement and even calling plays. Even with Debbie and coaches, I think my teammates look to me to be vocal."
The Cavaliers will face a familiar foe in Old Dominion in a rematch of a game played earlier this season in Charlottesville. Virginia forced 30 turnovers and won, 72-64. Logan-Friend scored 17 points -- her second-highest output of the season -- and grabbed seven rebounds.
Ryan said the key for Virginia is to contain senior guard and leading scorer Shareese Grant who finished with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists in the Dec. 10 contest.
"They have the ball in her hands quite a bit," Ryan said of Grant. "She's a smooth, smooth player. You've got to contain her to a certain degree. . . . Defense was the key to that win. Old Dominion has gotten much better defensively. It's going to be an absolute dogfight."