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Virginia women’s basketball’s rebuild will include local stars Deja Bristol and Aaliyah Pitts

Forward Deja Bristol, shown with Virginia's coaching staff, will head to Charlottesville in the fall after starring at New Hope. (deja bristol/Courtesy of Deja Bristol)

When Tina Thompson took over the Virginia women’s basketball program about two years ago, the WNBA legend had a vision of talented and high-character players transforming the Cavaliers into ACC contenders. Right away, two local Class of 2020 recruits jumped out: forward Deja Bristol of New Hope Academy and guard Aaliyah Pitts of Woodbridge.

Bristol could provide the Cavaliers a strong presence in the paint, Thompson thought, and Pitts could help spread the floor with her shooting ability. About two years later, Thompson got her wish when both signed with the Cavaliers.

In the fall, Bristol and Pitts will aim to contribute to Thompson’s rebuild as they head to Virginia, which finished 13-17 this past season and tied for ninth in the ACC at 8-10.

“When you’re kind of reinventing a program, it’s not just the talent that you bring in but also the quality of the people you bring in,” said Thompson, who was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. “I think they’re very high quality young people.”

Growing up, when Bristol watched her older brother play, people asked her to compete because she was usually the tallest person there. It wasn’t until ninth grade at Annapolis Area Christian that Bristol started playing basketball.

Her junior year, when she became more serious about the sport, Bristol transferred to New Hope Academy, serving as a role player when the Hyattsville private school won Geico High School Nationals. Bristol, who signed with Virginia in November, took on a larger role this past season, averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds for the National Association of Christian Athletes Division I runner-up.

The daughter of former Maryland guard Wayne Bristol, Deja had an early growth spurt; in high school she was often an undersized post player at 6-foot-1, going up against some of the nation’s top teams. The Laurel native made up for her height with strength. Against Lake Taylor in December, Bristol sent three defenders to the hardwood after she fought through a triple team and finished an and-one layup.

“They told me that they’ve never really seen a talent like mine so early in my development because I hadn’t really been playing that long,” Bristol said of Virginia’s coaches. “They pretty much told me that they could teach me and I could learn a lot and go far in my career. I really believe they were genuine when they said that.”

Pitts, whose mother played at Florida International in the mid-1990s, also began playing later than many prospects — around sixth grade, thanks to her parents’ persuasion.

Pitts grew up a dancer, so when she first shot layups, she jumped and landed with straight legs as if she were performing a sauté ballet. Within a year, though, she fell in love with the sport and later developed into a star at Woodbridge. As a junior, she led the Vikings to their first Virginia Class 6 title and was named second-team All-Met.

For her senior year, Pitts transferred to McNamara, where her clutch shooting and defense helped the Mustangs claim their first Washington Catholic Athletic Conference crown since 2008. The 6-foot guard, who averaged 10 points and four rebounds, signed with Virginia on April 15.

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“With the vision that they gave me, I think I see us winning,” said Pitts, whom ESPN rates a three-star recruit. “Tina Thompson, she’s building the program up, so I see it continuing to build.”

Virginia will graduate three of its top four scorers from this past season, so while Thompson didn’t want to speculate about the roles Bristol and Pitts will play, rotation spots seem to be available. Pitts joins a backcourt that includes former local stars Carole Miller (Edison) and Kylie Kornegay-Lucas (New Hope); Bristol believes she can help fill a gap down low after Virginia grabbed the fewest rebounds in the ACC in 2019-20 (1,080).

Virginia, which hasn’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2000, enters its third year under Thompson next season. Given how Bristol and Pitts began their basketball careers late, their high school coaches believe they have lofty upsides that could help Virginia climb the ACC standings.

“With freshmen, you just kind of have to wait and see,” Thompson said. “We know that they’re both going to grow and be integral parts of our team.”

With the high school and college basketball seasons finished, The Washington Post will use the coming weeks to look ahead to next season, when some of the area’s prep stars will take their skills to campuses across the nation. So far we have featured Oxon Hill’s Ronald Polite, Gonzaga’s Chuck Harris, Pallotti’s Eniya Russell and Paul VI’s Jeremy Roach.