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Catching up with Coach Mox: New UVa women's hoops coach eagerly preparing for her first season with Cavaliers

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New Virginia women’s basketball coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton introduces herself during a UVa men’s basketball game at John Paul Jones Arena.

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Entrenched in her new job as Virginia women’s basketball coach for almost three months now, Amaka Agugua-Hamilton — better known as Coach Mox — is comfortable.

She’s assembled her staff and constructed the Cavaliers’ roster for her first campaign at the helm of the Hoos, and her task through the summer months is to continue teaching and establishing the habits and characteristics she expects her players to exude by the time November rolls around.

Agugua-Hamilton, who guided Missouri State to consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances over the past two years and a cumulative 74-15 record during her three seasons at the school, said there are a few attributes those Lady Bears teams had that her first UVa squad can possess immediately.

“That’s going to be a difference right away,” she said this week. “People are going to see how hard and how fast we play. We’re going to play in an organized fashion, but our competitive level is going to be really, really high.”

UVa players will return to Charlottesville on Sunday for summer workouts, Agugua-Hamilton said, and she’s hoping they can build off some of the postseason sessions she held on the heels of her arrival in late March.

Agugua-Hamilton said her players need to be able to persevere through adversity and play with confidence — two more attainable traits in Year 1 — and that will help them start to turn the program in the right direction.

The Cavaliers went 5-22 last season, and haven’t had a winning year since 2017-18.

“I definitely see a lot of toughness in them, a lot of fight and a lot of hunger,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “A lot of them want to be in the NCAA Tournament this year and expect to be in the NCAA Tournament. They know what kind of coach they’ve got and I love what I’m seeing, to be honest, but I think we have to continue to change the mentality here and there’s a different mentality when you’re used to winning, used to going to the NCAA Tournament and then when you’re losing.

“So, there’s a mentality change that needs to happen,” she said, “and we need to do whatever we can to get some of those close losses they had into the win category, so I think that’s part of taking over a program. You’ve got to instill a mentality, so in workouts … there’s always a winner and a loser in drills. That’s how you change the mentality. I don’t care whether it’s a shooting drill or whatever it is, there’s going to be a winner and a loser. You make it competitive and you change the mentality to winning. It’s not OK to lose, because at the end of the day there’s going to be a winner and a loser.”

She said her players, of course, will get the player-development coaching they need as well as the strength-and-conditioning regimen they need in order to be in the proper shape to play at the up-tempo pace she wants them to play with. But Agugua-Hamilton’s style won’t involve a boot camp, run-them-forever approach in her pursuit to succeed at UVa.

Her core belief, she said, is using competition to spark intensity, create an edge, strengthen confidence and empower the players to have fun.

Agugua-Hamilton racked up nine wins over Power Five teams — including victories against Atlantic Coast Conference members Florida State and Virginia Tech — in her three years in charge at Missouri State. And she said since taking the UVa job, she’s learned how much talent the Cavaliers have going into 2022-23.

They return veteran guard Taylor Valladay, who logged a team-best 95 assists last year and was seventh in the ACC for assist-to-turnover ratio, as well as guard-forward Mir McLean. She joined the Hoos midway through last season as a transfer from Connecticut and was one of the top recruits nationally at Roland Park Country School in Baltimore.

Agugua-Hamilton said while she was an assistant at Michigan State, she tried to recruit McLean initially and then this past winter again as a transfer to Missouri State, so she is eager to coach McLean now.

Additionally, the new leader of the Hoos landed Notre Dame transfer forward Sam Brunelle, the former William Monroe High star, as well as Minnesota transfer guard Alexia Smith.

“We have a lot of talent here, honestly,” Agugua-Hamilton said, “and I don’t know if people know that. But we do, and when I got here, we hit the ground running with postseason workouts. We re-recruited our student-athletes and started to build those relationships. That’s the first thing I wanted to do, and then in conjunction with recruiting, we were able to bring in a pretty good class.”

She said Brunelle will aid UVa in playing the way Agugua-Hamilton wants them to. In 80 games at Notre Dame, Brunelle averaged 10 points and 4.0 rebounds per game.

“I love versatile players,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “That’s the one thing I love to recruit, because we do a lot of different things and pick apart defenses in different ways, so Sam is a great point-forward kid and she can handle the ball, she can start the break, she can shoot the 3, she can drive it and she can really pass it. And so, if you have a forward that can pass like Sam, there’s multiple things that you can do.”

Agugua-Hamilton said she thinks McLean has some versatility as well and can play multiple positions for the Hoos.

“So, the kids that we have are really talented and fit our culture of what we’re trying to build here,” the coach said, “and what we’ve already started building. Great programs that last and continue to thrive are programs that have great culture, and that’s the first thing we attacked.”

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