March 2, 2023
For Virginia, an early ACC tournament exit shouldn’t spoil Agugua-Hamilton’s accomplishments
Virginia's single-season turnaround from five to 15 wins under coach Mox should not be overlooked
GREENSBORO, N.C. – It was easy for Amaka Agugua-Hamilton to be slightly disappointed on Wednesday. And who could blame her? Her Virginia team – depleted by injuries – had just lost in the first game of the ACC Tournament to Wake Forest, 68-57.
But when asked to consider the bigger picture, Agugua-Hamilton could recognize what she and her team had accomplished this season.
“To end the season 15-15 after just winning five games last season is definitely a success,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “But we’ll be way better next year.”
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Virginia’s first-round exit in the ACC Tournament is a bummer for Cavaliers fans, but in Agugua-Hamilton, they have a leader they believe in. This is the person who, in just one season, has restored some sense of hope and pride in Cavaliers’ women’s basketball.
When she entered the transfer portal out of Notre Dame last spring, Sam Brunelle could see it right away. She decided to visit Virginia back then because of its academics and because of its proximity to her home in Ruckersville, Va. Brunelle grew up going to John Paul Jones Arena. She knew what Virginia was capable of being.
“I’m a big people person and relationship person, and I wanted to go into education. I knew that, so I was considering schools that were strong in education. UVA was good at that,” Brunelle told The Next. “But coach Mox is an amazing person. We just had this chemistry and clicked on my visit. I just knew that this is the person I want to play for and that I want to have as a mentor.”
Agugua-Hamilton inherited a program with history. A team that Debbie Ryan guided to three straight Final Fours. The team that had won 11 ACC titles. This was a team that had produced WNBA talent, from Dawn Staley to Jocelyn Willoughby.
But in four seasons under former coach Tina Thompson, Virginia became cellar-dwellers in the ACC. The Cavaliers endured four straight losing seasons under Thompson’s watch, were rarely competitive in conference games, and were shunned by some of their own talented in-state recruits – like Brunelle, who opted for Notre Dame instead of UVA in 2019.
Last season, things hit an all-time low when UVA finished with just five wins – its worst record in more than 42 seasons. When Thompson was fired, not even UVA alumna Tammi Reiss was interested in coming home to rebuild the program. Instead, Agugua-Hamilton was hired away from Missouri State to clean up the mess.
In Year One of the coach Mox era, UVA finished with a .500 record, its first non-losing campaign since the 2017-18 season. Virginia started the season on a 12-game winning streak, beating Wake Forest, East Carolina and Campbell along the way. UVA received votes in the AP Top 25 Poll. Things looked promising for the ‘Hoos as ACC play was starting in earnest in late December.
And then – the injury bug hit. Mir McLean and her 12.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per game were lost for the season on Jan. 8 with a right leg injury. A few weeks later, Brunelle and her 11 points per game went out with a foot injury. Carole Miller left the team. Camryn Taylor is the only Cavalier that appeared in every single game.
But through it all, Virginia kept battling.
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“Changing the culture is a big deal for me, and I think we changed it some, but it’s not there, and it could take a couple of years to get to the place I want it to be,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “I’m proud that our players kept fighting and persevered through adversity because we could have quit a long time ago… There’s a lot of teams that would have folded, canceled games, things like that, and we were not going to do that throughout the course of the season.”
Added Brunelle: “I think coach Mox believes very strongly in having a positive culture, a family culture. And we were all very bought-in to that for the majority of the season. And I think where we struggled at times was where we all just weren’t bought-in at the same time. So, that’s somewhere that we can improve better for next season.”
Some of the culture in Charlottesville has changed in a real tangible way, though.
Virginia was fourth in the ACC this season in attendance, averaging 3,488 fans per game at John Paul Jones Arena. That’s more than double what the ‘Hoos drew in Thompson’s final season and more than the former coach’s first or second season at the helm.
The atmosphere in Charlottesville this season were more akin to the games Brunelle went to growing up as a kid.
“It’s so cool. I remember being younger and JPJ was packed for games. You know, we’re trying to get back to that. And I’m so grateful for the fans that support us all season because it got better and better every game, honestly. So, I’m excited for next season for them to come back out and support some more and it’ll be great.”
Yes, next season. Brunelle injured her foot in January and missed UVA’s final eight games. She had surgery to repair it recently and she told The Next that she plans to use her fifth season of eligibility to come back to Virginia.
“The foot is great,” Brunelle said. “Hopefully, it’ll be quick and I’ll be back out there before you know it.”
Before we know it – with Brunelle, McLean, Taylor and other players to come – Agugua-Hamilton could have UVA contending again in the ACC.
“Changing the mentality to a winning mentality and to never giving up, and just showing up and being consistent is what I wanted to do,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “We got there at times. We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there.”