Virginia's Thompson bringing new approach to Cavaliers

Virginia's Thompson bringing new approach to Cavaliers

Published Nov. 8, 2018 1:36 a.m. ET

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Tina Thompson has moved the blue sticky notes that used to cover the left side of her desk into a notebook to cut down on the clutter.

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer is focused on the one thing she knows well: Winning.

It's fitting she will make her head coaching debut against a top 10 opponent — No. 6 Mississippi State on Friday. Thompson embraces challenges, having worked hard for every accolade that has come her way.

A two-time Olympic gold medalist, Thompson was the third-option — albeit arguably the best third option ever in the women's game — playing alongside Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes during the Houston Comets WNBA championship run. She scored more than 1,500 points and had more than 1,000 rebounds at Morningside High School in Inglewood, California, before heading to USC — though she never quite stepped out of shadows of another Morningside and USC player before her: Lisa Leslie.


Thompson just continued to play her game, eventually becoming the No. 1 pick in the 1997 WNBA draft after averaging a double-double at USC.

Now 43, Thompson wants to make Virginia a championship contender again — with the Cavaliers playing their game.

Which Thompson stresses will be up-tempo.

"We're still going to be a defensive team," Thompson said. "I mean, it's something that we talk about daily but we need to score more so encouraging our team to be offensive-minded is something that I've done from Day One. I mean, we have to score points.

"Defense, for sure, wins championships, but it takes some points here and there to actually kind of secure those wins. Confidence in shooting the ball ... being comfortable and free-flowing and scoring the basketball, is very important. That is definitely a point of emphasis for us."

Virginia finished 19-14 last season and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine seasons. The Cavaliers held opponents to 61.2 points per game. But they scored just 62.1 points per contest, and that's not enough for Thompson.

The core includes guard Dominique Toussaint, the leading returning scorer (11.4 ppg), forward Jocelyn Willoughby, who was No. 3 at 9.6 ppg, and 6-foot-9 center Felicia Aiyeotan, who scored 7.4 ppg, grabbed 6.9 rebounds per game and led the Atlantic Coast Conference with 69 blocked shots.

Thompson is not thinking about rebuilding, not with that trio of juniors.

"I think we're just contributing to a pretty solid foundation," Thompson said. "We don't have to rebuild when you have a core like that. We just have to change the mindset. We're just giving it a face-lift, so to speak."

A winning face-lift.

In her office, the back wall behind her desk includes a photograph blown up to mural size. The photo shows the opening tip of an early season game against Tennessee before a nearly packed house at Virginia's John Paul Jones Arena on Nov. 20, 2011.

The final score — Virginia 69, No. 3 Tennessee 64 — is super-imposed on the scoreboard.

"A couple of people have asked me if I was going to change that, and I was like, are you kidding me? Why would I?" she said. "This is the goal. This is the start. This is the foundation of what is Virginia."

Thompson, hired when a family matter caused Joanne Boyle to retire after last season, took over a program with a history of success. The Cavaliers went to the NCAA Tournament 20 consecutive seasons from 1983-2002 under Debbie Ryan, reached three Final Fours and lost 70-67 to the Lady Vols in overtime in the 1990-91 championship game.

Thompson spent the last three seasons as an assistant coach at Texas, and her impressive resume made her hiring an easy decision for Virginia athletic director Carla Williams, who also has a background in women's basketball. Williams played four seasons at Georgia and then worked as an assistant coach and top recruiter before altering her career path to get into the administrative side.

"I think what's important is to have a person like Tina who has been there and done that," Williams said. "She is a living testament to championships and enthusiasm and winning. I just think that is a bonus. I think she'll be a great coach. I think she'll be a great recruiter and I think our players already adore her."

At Texas, one of Thompson's responsibilities was working with the Longhorns' post players, and the presence of Aiyeotan makes her arrival all the more intriguing. The native of Nigeria is the tallest player in the women's game, according to Virginia, but is still relatively new to basketball.

Aiyeotan has embraced how the 6-2 Thompson played the game.

"I told them that I didn't have the fanciest game and didn't look good, but it was not something that I ever worried about," Thompson said. "I paid more attention to and was more conscious of my efficiency. Not taking bad shots. Taking the shot I made more times than not, and it wasn't an around the back, behind the basket finger-roll."

Aiyeotan, who rushed and missed many shots from in close last season, has taken the advice from "Coach Tina" to heart.

"I think it's really good for you to focus on the finishing," Aiyeotan said. "That's what counts on the scoreboard and I think the more consistent you are, the more confident you get."

She doesn't have to wait to show how much she has learned. On Friday she'll face Mississippi State's 6-7 Teaira McCowan, who of most highly regarded post players in the women's game.

All of the Cavaliers are looking forward to hosting the sixth-ranked Bulldogs.

"We opened against them last year and that was a fun, exciting game," Willoughby said of the Cavaliers 68-53 loss in Starkville.

"And now they get to come to our house, so that makes it even better."

Thompson wouldn't want it any other way.