Lightning couldn’t strike twice for Virginia Tech (14-8, 8-8), as No. 3 North Carolina State (17-3, 12-2) avenged its January loss to the Hokies and advanced to the ACC semifinals with a 68-55 victory.
“I’m disappointed in the outcome, obviously I thought we had the opportunity to come in here and keep playing for a long time,” Brooks said. “It’s a little bit of a tough draw to get the number three team in the country as the two seed in your league. Give them a lot of credit, I thought they were a lot more experienced in a lot of spots than we were.”
Star center Elissa Cunane was unavailable for the Wolfpack in the Hokies’ overtime win earlier in the season, and her impact was clear on Friday night. Cunane led the way for NC State with 25 points and nine rebounds in a matchup with her close friend Elizabeth Kitley.
“We’re pretty familiar with each other, so it was like being home again,” Kitley said. “I think we both like playing against each other because it makes us both better.”
Kitley had a nice night as well in the heavily anticipated match-up between top ACC centers. The first-team All-ACC selection came up just shy of another double-double, posting 20 points and nine rebounds.
The Hokies’ other first-team All-ACC player, Aisha Sheppard, did not have her best night, after being injured in Thursday’s second-round victory over Miami. Sheppard scored just six points while shooting 2-of-15 from the floor and missing all six of her three-pointers.
“It was a valiant effort, and I was proud of her for going out there,” Brooks said. “We kept saying that 60% or 70% of Aisha Sheppard is probably better than most people. I was very proud that she went out there and gave it the good old college try, but she just wasn’t herself.”
The Hokies’ struggles began in the second quarter when the offense went freezing cold. After the first frame, the game was all even at 16, but the Wolfpack outscored the Hokies by ten before halftime. Tech shot an abysmal 1-of-15 from the floor and scored just seven points in the second quarter. From then on, the Wolfpack were able to hold the Hokies at arm’s length.
The Hokies were able to cut the deficit to four with a run late in the third quarter. However, the Wolfpack quickly pulled back away, scoring 13 of the next 17 points.
Overall, it was a tough night offensively for the Hokies as Brooks’ squad has only been held to fewer than 55 points just once this season. Tech shot just 35% from the floor and under 25% from long range. Tech has been a team that lives and dies by the three, and that shooting performance wasn’t enough against an elite team like the Wolfpack.
“I give credit to NC State, they do a tremendous job, one of the best in the country, with scouting and when you give them three chances to look at you, they do a great job of getting you out of what you want to do,” Brooks said. “No discredit to them, but I really think it was us. Aisha Sheppard just wasn’t herself and couldn’t get into rhythm or get into her shots.”
NC State will move on to face the winner of Georgia Tech and Clemson on Saturday for a chance to play in the championship on Sunday afternoon. The Wolfpack are looking to win back-to-back conference championships for the first time in program history.
Despite the loss, the Hokies shouldn’t have any issue making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006. Tech would have been selected for the tournament last season had it not been for COVID-19. Currently, ESPN’s Charlie Crème projects the Hokies as a nine seed with just over a week until the selection show.
“It’s a little bit of a different feeling,” Brooks said. “I don’t feel like I have to watch the scoreboards of other tournaments as much. I feel like we have a great body of work, so I feel like we can relax a little bit and really take care of ourselves from a physical standpoint, but also mental.”
Tech will learn its fate on March 15 at 7:00 p.m. when the field for the NCAA Tournament is announced on ESPN.