It has been a historic season for Virginia Tech women’s basketball, as the team earned its 20th win of the season and its tenth ACC win at Notre Dame on Thursday night. In head coach Kenny Brooks’ fourth season in Blacksburg, the team has finally taken the next step.
“We knew we were going to be talented and we knew we were going to be inexperienced with each other, but the one thing that I thought could bring us together was chemistry,” Brooks said. “As the year has gone on, it’s only gotten stronger because they do so many different things with each other, and you can just really tell that they like each other.”
This chemistry that they’ve built started over the summer when the team took a 12-day trip to Europe. The Hokies traveled to Paris before traveling to three cities in Italy. They played three games during the span, and the team grew closer through this trip.
“That trip is a lot of fun and you do a lot of different things, but that’s a trip where you can typically get tired of each other,” Brooks said. “We kept going from city to city and every time we got to a different city, it felt like the bond got stronger.”
The Hokies have taken this chemistry and translated it into their best season since joining the ACC with a 20-6 overall record and a 10-5 ACC record. In Coach Brooks’ first three seasons, Tech went just 16-32 in conference-play.
Last year, in a 6-10 ACC season, the Hokies lost five games by seven points or less. That doesn’t include a nine-point overtime loss to No. 8 NC State. Those close games may have cost Tech its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006. However, this season, the Hokies have found a way to finish off ACC games late and are rolling towards hearing their name called during the selection show on March 16th.
“We had talent last year, but that group wasn’t nearly as close as this group,” Brooks said. “They believe in each other, and the looks on their faces in huddles, their approach to what we do in film sessions in practice is a different vibe, and that’s shown on the court.”
A key to the Hokies’ success this season has been the addition of point guard Taja Cole. As a graduate-transfer from the University of Georgia, the Hokies brought in one of the best passers in the country. She leads the ACC in assists and is currently third in the entire nation. Her ability to distribute and lead the team has been a key for Tech.
“Some people are just naturally good leaders and some people just aren’t; we were missing that element last year of someone who would lead not only on the court, but off of the court,” Brooks said. “Taja came in and that’s just her personality in general; she’s a leader, she’s out in front and she’s a trend-setter. That personality has blended perfectly with what we’ve needed.”
Cole has received help from the outside shooting of junior Aisha Sheppard and sophomore Dara Mabrey. The two guards lead the team in scoring and account for just under 40% of the team’s scoring. They both are consistent shooters from the outside, but the Hokies haven’t had to rely on their outside shooting as much this season.
Last year, when the Hokies made eight or fewer threes against an ACC opponent, they went 2-7. This year, Tech is 8-4 in ACC-play when making eight or fewer from they outside. They’ve only had four game with ten or more threes after having 18 such games last season.
“We were more reliant on the three in years past; this year we have the capabilities to light it up from three, but we don’t have to,” Brooks said. “We have such a great post presence now, and they kind of feed off of each other.”
The great play in the post has come primarily from two newcomers this season to the Hokies. Lydia Rivers is a graduate-transfer from just down the road in Radford and decided to spend one year in Blacksburg, following in her father’s footsteps. John Rivers was a two-sport athlete for the Hokies from 1988 to 1992. He played tight end for the football team, and is the sixth-leading rebounder in men’s basketball program history. Rivers has lived up to expectations with a team-leading 8.3 rebounds per game.
However, the star down low for Tech has been freshman Elizabeth Kitley. A legitimate contender for ACC Freshman of the Year, Kitley is averaging 11.8 points per game and 7.4 rebounds. The five-star recruit was ranked 33rd in the nation by ESPN in last year’s recruiting class and is a large reason why the Hokies have had so much success in the paint.
Kitley’s real success has occurred over her last four games. After a 1-9 shooting performance against NC State on February 6, she is averaging 17.8 points and 8.3 rebounds. This includes her breakout game against Wake Forest where her father, Ralph, played basketball from 1986-1990. In Winston-Salem, Kitley put up 21 points and 14 rebounds, which tied a career high.
“She played really bad against NC State and that bothered her, and it seemed like the lightbulb just went on,” Brooks said. “I know exactly where I was, what I was doing and what I had on when she committed to us, and we knew that was a historic event for our program because she allows us to have a post presence like the premier teams in the ACC have.”
Cole taking over the true point guard role has changed the duties of Mabrey. A highly touted recruit out of New Jersey, Mabrey was thrown into the fire as the starting point guard for a majority of her freshman year. She flourished with 11.2 points per game and shot an ACC-leading 46.2% from beyond the arc.
This season, with Cole taking over the point guard position, Mabrey has shifted off of the ball. This has allowed her to focus on her shooting, and she once again leads the team in shooting percentage from three-point range.
“Last year, we felt like Rachel Camp was going to be our point guard, but she was injured, so that responsibility fell on Dara a lot,” Brooks said. “This year, we’ve slid her off to the wing and allowed her to do what she does best which is shoot the basketball.”
An under-the-radar contributor for this team has been forward Trinity Baptiste. The junior was a starter for almost all of last season, but has moved to the bench this year. This hasn’t stopped Baptiste from having another great season; a season that could possibly be good enough to win ACC Sixth Player of the Year.
“For her to be able to come in and offer that punch off of the bench is a luxury that not many people have,” Brooks said. “Most teams don’t have a player who can come off of the bench and is capable of scoring 20 points in a game, so that firepower is really good for us.”
Despite all of the success that the team has had this season, there is still a lot of work to do for the Hokies. They are currently tied for third in the ACC with Florida State and Duke while top-ten teams NC State and Louisville lead the way in the conference. Tech is fighting for a possible double bye in the ACC Tournament, and their battle continues with the Commonwealth Clash on Sunday.
“It’s a rivalry game and every game matters coming down the stretch, not only for NCAA seeding, but for ACC seeding,” Brooks said. “We’re coming off of a pretty big high of beating Notre Dame, which is something we’ve never done there, but this group is really good at tackling the task at hand, and I think they’ll be OK with that.”
The Hokies definitely can’t look past Virginia, but their most important game of the season looms on the horizon. Duke will travel to Blacksburg on Thursday night in a game that could decide who gets an automatic spot in the ACC Quarterfinals.
“It’s going to be a very important game because we are tied with them, and we’re actually behind them because they own the tiebreaker as of today,” Brooks said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity, and any time you can walk into a situation and be toe-to-toe with Duke, it’s always good.”
Tech will finish off their season on March 1 at No. 5 Louisville in a game that could be a huge resume builder heading into ACC Tournament week.
After three seasons of coming up short, Coach Brooks has finally gotten this team over the hump in the ACC as the Hokies look well on their way to an NCAA tournament appearance. The Hokies have won eight of their last ten games and look like they’ve hit their stride heading into the postseason.
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘If you were talking to the selection committee, why Virginia Tech?’ I honestly believe we’re one of the top teams in the country playing in one of the top leagues in the country,” Brooks said. “We have to battle, night in and night out, and I think that we have the capabilities, if we get in, to advance; the NCAA Tournament should be full of teams that are capable of advancing and I think we have that.”