Elizabeth Kitley was a freshman in high school when she was first introduced to competitive basketball.
Her AAU coach, the father of Kitley’s high school and current collegiate teammate Cayla King, Tom, plucked her from the other two sports she grew up playing, volleyball and softball. The reason? She was — and would always likely be — the tallest player on the floor.
Even in high school, most realized that she was different.
“He pretty much just handed me a uniform and said, ‘go play,’” Kitley said at the ACC Tip-Off in Charlotte in mid-October.
Kitley was unsure of basketball at first, but worked hard, a trait she said she learned from both her parents who are principals at public schools, to come into her own as a prospect.
But she worked often with her father, Ralph, who played college basketball at Wake Forest and overseas in Germany.
She picked up competitive basketball quickly as she dominated in high school, where she won two Class 4 North Carolina state championships. Her current 6-foot-6 frame makes her the tallest player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. When the former five-star recruit committed in 2019, she was one of Tech’s highest rated recruits of all-time at No. 33 overall.
But when she arrived in Blacksburg, from her hometown in Greensboro, North Carolina, the raw recruit wasn’t what the polished junior is now. She arrived as a ‘raw talent that’s worked hard’ to get to the skill level she’s currently at, as head coach Kenny Brooks described.
“You noticed her height, but her skills needed improvement,” Brooks said.
Now, six years and one USA Basketball stint later, the center is a force to be reckoned with on the court.
She’s also a leader on a deeply-experienced Virginia Tech team that returns all five of its starters. One that has its eyes on an ACC Championship, and one that eyes a deeper run into the NCAA Tournament after it was eliminated in the second round in 2021.
“We can contend for an ACC championship,” Kitley said. “We have so much talent and experience coming back. There’s not a ton of doubt in my mind.”
But Kitley admits she still has a little bit to go to improve her game in order to take VT further. She spent the 2020 offseason mastering her stepback fadeaway when she’s down low in the paint, a move she used often to score over opponents that matched up within an inch or two of her.
And even after leading her team with 18.4 points per game and 10.4 rebounds, the junior center — though she said she doesn’t like to refer to herself as a ‘true center’ — still sees room for growth in her game.
“[My skills] aren’t perfect,” Kitley said. “But I’m confident in my game and that I’ll continue to improve and become a true leader for my team.”
And a leader, she is.
She spent this past offseason at a USA Basketball camp, where she worked on breaking out of double teams and using her vision to find an open teammate — something she admits she struggled with her first two years. She also improved her mid-range shooting, which could make her one of — if not the — most difficult players to match up with in the ACC.
Her experience and veteran leadership, too, is needed if Tech makes a run in either tournament. The Hokies struggled with consistency at times throughout the 2020-21 season, one in which they finished 15-10 overall and 8-8 in conference play last season.
But Tech showed the ability to contend with anyone in the ACC when it stunned then-No. 2 NC State with a 83-71 overtime win in late January. It showed growth, too, winning eight of its final 11 conference games.
Kitley said that she and the rest of her team gained valuable experience during their win over Marquette in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But she said she learned the most in the Hokies’ 90-48 second round loss to Baylor.
“We learned what we needed to do as a team to compete with those types of teams,” Kitley said. “Bringing back the experience from that is crucial for our season this year.”
Though she didn’t say it, it’s widely expected for her to be in contention for ACC Player of the Year, where she finished second in preseason polling to NC State’s Elissa Cunane, her good friend and former AAU teammate.
To Kitley, individual accolades don’t matter as much as team success does. She and the Hokies have their mind set on contending at the top of the ACC and, at the minimum, a run at the Sweet 16.
“We have a lot to do,” Kitley said. “We have to keep working.”