It’s been quite the year for Virginia Tech women’s basketball.
The Hokies came into the season with lingering questions about their depth and lack of size. Kenny Brooks was entering his first season at the helm, installing a brand new system that brought him success at James Madison. Expectations were somewhat low.
Instead, Virginia Tech has kicked off the season by going 15-1 and 2-1 in the ACC. Tech is currently ranked 15th in the country, and the Hokies look poised to earn an NCAA Tournament berth.
“When I got here, I didn’t know what to expect,” Brooks said. “Never in a million years did I think they would be this talented.”
It’s not like Brooks didn’t inherit a competitive team. Virginia Tech went 18-14 last season, earning an appearance in the WNIT. It was the program’s first winning record since the 2006-2007 season. Despite the success, it seemed like something was still missing.
Enter Brooks, who did nothing at James Madison except win 75 percent of his games, make 11 straight postseason appearances and win five conference titles.
“I think, really, just instilling a new attitude,” Brooks said. “Nothing against the previous staff, Coach (Dennis) Wolff or what they did, because obviously they did a really good job of recruiting these kids here. It just seems like the kids were welcoming change. I knew I had to come in and still be me.”
Brooks took over a Virginia Tech team that had to replace three starting seniors (Hannah Young, Taijah Campbell, Dominique Powell), all of whom played big roles.
“With the roster change, they lost three key players last year,” Brooks said. “Kids that I would love to have right now to give us some added depth, some leadership, some experience. Losing those kids… when you lose a Hannah Young who’s averaging more than 10 points a game, Dominique Powell who was really a good leader and a great role player, Taijah Campbell who was a tremendous athlete, you lose those kids, there’s going to be some concern.”
Under Brooks’ leadership, the Hokies have made great strides. Tech started off the season 3-0, but didn’t feel like they had arrived until their win over Central Florida on Nov. 19. The Hokies won 67-64, earning their first road win of the season.
“They tested us,” Brooks said. “Kendyl (Brooks) stepped up and made some big shots for us. Regan Magarity didn’t score a point and we still won the game. When we walked into the locker room, she was the happiest of us all. I knew with that kind of mentality, with those kinds of kids, they don’t need to score to be happy. As long as they win, they’re fine. I thought we really grew up. We bonded on the road and I think it propelled us when we came back.”
Fortunately for Virginia Tech, Magarity hasn’t had many games like she did vs. Central Florida. Magarity is averaging 13.8 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game. She’s been a force on both ends of the floor, scoring, owning the boards and defending the rim. Magarity and Sidney Cook (13.9 points per game, 9.6 rebounds per game) have formed a formidable frontcourt that has logged tons of minutes.
Samantha Hill’s breakout season has also propelled a Hokie offense that was known for struggling to keep up with opponents. Hill, who never averaged more than 3.7 points per game in her first three seasons, hadn’t lived up to her potential according to Brooks. He recruited Hill while at James Madison, and was surprised to see her struggle to develop.
“I just kept thinking, something’s not right,” Brooks said. “I thought that kid should be a lot better.”
Brooks said that Hill’s lightbulb moment came in Tech’s win over Central Florida. Hill passed up two open looks in the game’s first three possessions and ended up traveling on a drive to the basket. Brooks yanked Hill out of the game, but not for long.
“As she’s coming over to me, I can tell she’s bracing for me to rip her,” Brooks said. “I got after her. I said, ‘You need to shoot the ball. You’re messing up the flow of our offense if you don’t shoot the ball.’ She’s nodding her head, and as she’s starting to walk by me because she thinks the conversation is over with, I push her back to the scorer’s table and say, ‘Now go get back in.’ She looked at me in disbelief.”
Hill reentered the game and immediately hit a three-pointer, and would finish with nine points.
“I could see this little smirk on her face like, ‘Ok, I’m starting to understand what he wants from me,’” Brooks said. “From that point on, she’s been tremendous.”
Hill has indeed been tremendous. She’s averaging career highs in points, assists, rebounds and steals. In ACC play, Hill is averaging 17.6 points per game.
“It’s always been in there,” Brooks said. “The things I thought I was seeing as a high school senior are coming to fruition now.”
Tech has also benefited from continued growth and improvement from sophomore point guard Chanette Hicks, who Brooks said “drives the bus.” Hicks is averaging 16.4 points per game, 5.4 assists per game and has registered 71 steals in just 16 games. Her energy, as well as her ability to run the offense, has turned Virginia Tech into a juggernaut, scoring 76.7 points per contest.
“When Chanette’s out, we lose that defensive prowess, we lose the ability to kick the ball up in transition or push the ball in transition,” Brooks said. “Sami (Hill) can do it, but Sami can’t push the ball and kick it to Sami. That’s what Chanette does so well. She makes us go. If she’s playing hard and she’s playing well, we’re usually playing well.”
Virginia Tech has also been bolstered by the return of Tara Nahodil, the 6-foot-4 senior center. Nahodil decided to return to the team sometime after the start of the season and has played since the end of the fall semester. Nahodil has provided depth up front in a thin frontcourt.
“Sometimes stepping away and having something taken away from you makes you really appreciate it more,” Brooks said. “I think that’s what happened. She appreciated the comradery with her teammates. She’s a Hokie, through and through. The real world, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. When I approached her about coming back, she was very humble. She came back and ever since then, she’s been a hard worker, great teammate and she’s given us a few minutes. I need her to give us a few more.”
As great as Virginia Tech has been this season, the Hokies must now rebound from their first loss of the season. The Hokies fell to No. 14 Miami on Wednesday night 82-75 in a back and forth affair.
“I think the first thing it taught us is that we’re pretty good,” Brooks said. “It’s kind of funny that I say that, but when you can go to the 14th-ranked team in the country, and you’re leading starting the fourth quarter, and a few plays go their way and not your way, that’s what really determines the game, you got a pretty good shot.”
Since the loss, Brooks said his Hokies have responded exactly how he had hoped.
“You could see disappointment in their face, but you could also see eagerness to get back out there and play,” Brooks said. “That’s what you want. You don’t want them moping around like the world’s about to end, but at the same time, you don’t want them walking around happy and joking, like nothing’s the matter. I really like the approach that they’ve had when they’ve come in here.”
Virginia Tech has gotten off to good starts before. The Hokies started last season 13-3, only to go 5-11 in the ACC. Tech went 11-5 to start the 2014-2015 season, but finished just 1-15 in conference. If Tech wants to avoid a similar ending, they’ll have to navigate arguably the best conference in the country for women’s basketball.
“It’s a new year, it’s a new regime, it’s a new everything,” Brooks said. “It’s a new team. What’s happened in the past is in the past. It really has no bearing on what happens now. They need to believe that they are one of the upper echelon teams in the ACC. I can’t say that we’re the best team in the ACC, a lot of that has to be proven, but I really believe that anything can happen. You look at this league, there’s no one undefeated in this league.”
“The one thing I do like is, I feel like we’re part of the gauntlet,” Brooks said. “I don’t think people look at us and say, ‘That’s an easy win.’ They look at us as part of the gauntlet.”
Virginia Tech will look to rebound from their loss to Miami on Monday against Wake Forest. Tech will host the Demon Deacons at Cassell Coliseum at 1 p.m.