As if facing an Atlantic Coast Conference team wasn't tough enough, the University of Richmond women's basketball team had to do it hours after it was announced that two players, including the starting point guard, were leaving the team.
Despite all that, the Spiders kept the University of Virginia Cavaliers, who defeated then No. 3 Tennessee in November, close for most of the game but lost, 69-59, Sunday afternoon at the Robins Center.
Richmond coach Michael Shafer gave no reason for the transfer of Miah Register, who was still listed as a starter in the media guide, and reserve sophomore Leah Johnson. In place of Register, who started the previous seven games this year, Shafer inserted freshman Keri Soppe into the starting lineup.
It was not an easy starting debut for Soppe against a defense that Shafer described as long and athletic. The Cavaliers played mostly zone defense and forced 23 Richmond turnovers, five of which came from Soppe.
"I've got a lot of confidence in Keri, I've got a lot of confidence in Abby [Oliver], I got a lot of confidence in the rest of our basketball team," said Shafer, who mentioned the currently injured Amber Nichols as someone who could start at point guard. "I really believe that we have five kids on the floor that are all on the same page. Maybe we didn't play like it tonight in spurts, but in terms of buying in and understanding what it is we need to do, I don't question that with Abby, I don't question that with Keri."
Oliver, a natural shooting guard, played some point guard and tied her career high with six assists. She also led the team in scoring for the fifth time this year with 23 points.
The normal stoic Oliver showed how important this game was to this young Richmond team, trying to show it was worthy of its 6-1 record. After drawing an early charge, Oliver slapped the floor in a rare emotional outbreak for the senior.
"As a player, if you don't come out excited with energy to play an ACC school, then I don't know what you're going to do," she said, drawing a laugh from Shafer.
After a back-and-forth first half in which there were six ties, Richmond was scoreless on its first eight possessions of the second half. By the time Oliver hit a three pointer with 15:33, the Cavaliers had opened up an eight-point lead. It would be about another five minutes until Richmond scored again, with Genevieve Okoro hitting a floater that cut UVa.'s lead to 50-40.
"I think we allowed pressure to bother us and I'm not sure that the pressure wasn't anything we hadn't seen," Shafer said. "I think we have seen that pressure. They're big, they're strong, active and I think we let it affect us more than we could have."
Virginia led by as many as 15 in the second half after a three-point play by Ataira Franklin, who finished the game with 10 points. It was a defensive shift called by Shafer that allowed the Spiders to get back into the game.
The Spiders went into a zone and kept the Cavaliers from getting easy looks and forced some turnovers. After getting possession of the ball either on a rebound or a turnover, the Spiders looked for a transition basket.
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"They could have dropped their heads," Shafer said of his team's resiliency. "The reality of it is, I don't know if we have that basketball team. I don't know if that's in us and it better not be."
With a week off before hosting the University of North Carolina at Greensboro next Saturday, Richmond will have time to work on playing with a new starting point guard, among other things.
"I think we learn more from losses than wins because we look at every little thing you did wrong," Oliver said. "We have a big chance to learn from our mistakes and get a lot better."
Contact staff writer Andrew Prezioso at firstname.lastname@example.org
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