HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. _ Randolph's Aliyah Huland El had spent many hours at the Rutgers Athletic Center, attending camps, playing in AAU games and taking in Scarlet Knights games as a fan.
In the second round of the WNIT, Huland El, who enjoyed watching Essence Carson, had the opportunity to play at the RAC when she and Virginia clashed with Rutgers.
Being back in New Jersey was a thrill for the 6-foot-1 sophomore guard, who scored 17 points in a 71-55 victory on March 20 much to the delight of family and friends.
"I was really excited about it," said Huland El of her return to her home state. "I was born and raised in Jersey. Lauren Moses is from New Jersey, too, so there were 40 people there between the two of us. I remembered going to the RAC when I was younger. Being there again was such a great experience."
By beating Rutgers, Virginia avenged a 12-point setback it suffered at the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam Tournament.
Huland El, Morris County's all-time top scorer with 2,286 points, and the Cavaliers had a second game in the Northeast, going up against Hofstra in the Round of 16. The majority of a season-high 25 turnovers occurred late in the game and were costly as Virginia was ousted, 65-57.
"We put up a good fight," Huland El said. "Hofstra was able to pull away. They capitalized on our turnovers and other mistakes. I missed a few layups. We really beat ourselves."
It was Huland El's second time competing in the postseason. In 2015, Virginia exited the NIT after being defeated by Old Dominion.
"The ante is upped in the tournaments," Huland El said. "Lose and you go home. You play every other day. You're tired but you still give more."
Virginia (18-16) had a solid season despite losing its lone senior and second-leading scorer, Faith Randolph, to a broken thumb in early January. Usually the first to sub in, Huland El got her first start against Wake Forest three days after Randolph was injured.
In her third game as a starter, Huland El posted 12 points and had five assists versus Georgia Tech.
"I was never focused on starting," said Huland El, whose lone start as a freshman was against Florida State. "I wanted to do as well as I could, play good minutes. It's nice to start, of course, but it's not important to me."
Six times this season, Huland El was the Cavaliers' high scorer. She attained a career-high 20 points twice. The highs came in back-to-back games against Auburn and Longwood.
Huland El, majoring in kinesiology and aspiring to become a pediatrician, averaged 9.6 points and 3.4 rebounds. She made 21 blocks and had 35 steals. She had 35 3-pointers, second best on the team. Huland El shot .810 from the free throw line and .427 from the field in 34 games, 10 as a starter.
She's made no drastic changes to her game but noted that college ball is much different than high school.
"I've improved my footwork and needed to be better conditioned," Huland El said. "We play for 40 minutes. Strength is important in college. I've fixed my form a little bit."
While the graduation of Randolph is significant, Huland El has high hopes for the 2016-17 campaign. Leading scorer Mikayla Venson (15.1 ppg.), Breyana Mason (10.0 ppg.) and Moses (9.4 ppg., 6.9 rpg.) are back.
Newark Academy standout Jocelyn Willoughby is among the 2016 recruits. She knows Huland El well, having played AAU for Ring City with her. Also joining the Cavaliers are Staten Island, N.Y. native Dominique Toussaint (Christ the King) and Lisa Jablonowski of Luxembourg.
"We can only go up," Huland El said. "We've got a lot of skilled players with experience. The players coming in have great work ethics. We could be better than we've ever been."
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