All Kenny Brooks could do was stare. The crowd — which was excited moments earlier — fell quiet.
Aisha Sheppard, Virginia Tech’s brightest star on a roster full of them, was hunched over in pain, talking to a trainer while holding her lower left leg under the basket. The fifth-year senior left the game early in the fourth quarter of No. 19 North Carolina’s 71-46 blowout win in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The two-time All-ACC first teamer had just landed awkwardly on her left leg after leaping at the basket on a fast break attempt. She missed the basket as Deja Kelly approached her on the break, but that didn’t matter. Immediately after her left leg planted, Sheppard’s knee buckled and she fell to the ground. D’asia Gregg, her teammate, and the trainer carried her to the locker room as she kept her head up.
Her head coach was stunned. Her teammates couldn’t help but look over at their leader. A displeasing loss had appeared to take a turn for the worst. The Hokies (11-4, 3-1 ACC) already trailed by 23 points at the time of Sheppard’s exit, shooting just 31% and a season-low 16.7% from deep, while turning the ball a season-high 21 times in their 25-point loss to the Tar Heels (14-1, 4-1 ACC).
Aside from Elizabeth Kitley’s fifth consecutive double-double where she scored a team-leading 14 points and a game-high 17 rebounds, there wasn’t much else for Tech to feel good about — especially after Sheppard’s departure.
A bad feeling after a game, though, is something the Hokies haven’t felt for a while. After a bad 48 hours that included losses to then-No. 11 Tennessee and Liberty, Virginia Tech had played four games — and won all of them. That stretch included a dominant win over Radford and three straight victories to open the ACC schedule, a first for the program.
The Hokies hadn’t struggled to shoot, take care of the ball or defend in a few weeks. But that’s exactly what happened on Sunday night. After taking a 4-2 lead early in the first quarter, North Carolina tied the game and took the lead on two separate jumpers from Anya Poole. From that point on, the remaining 36 minutes, Virginia Tech trailed.
It was just one of those nights.
The adjustments didn’t work. Kitley was doubled for most of the night. Georgia Amoore (seven points) and Sheppard (two points), where the perimeter shooting flows from, both had down games compared to their usual production. Cayla King had eight points on 2-of-6 shooting from deep, but it wasn’t enough. Kayana Traylor (2-of-9) and Emily Lytle (1-of-10), reliable scorers from the perimeter, couldn’t find the bottom of the basket.
Virginia Tech was outscored in the first three quarters: 16-10 in the first, 19-7 in the next, and 18-11 in the third. The Hokies matched the Tar Heels scoring total in the fourth at 18 points, possibly inspired to play hard for their fallen teammate, but by then it was too little, too late.
The Hokies, who are 11th in the country with 9.4 threes per game, didn’t knock down a single shot from deep until 1:29 left in the third quarter.
There were too many defensive lapses and Tech was a little too careless with the basketball on the offensive end. There were too many scoreless trips at the end of the floor for the Hokies when they were unable to stop the bleeding, too. The Tar Heels went on an 11-0 run in the second quarter and then followed it up with a 14-0 run in the following period.
The Hokies weren’t able to keep up with UNC’s 43.8% shooting percentage, nor could they stop Eva Hodgson (19 points), Deja Kelly (15 points), Alyssa Ustby (13 points) or Poole (12 points) from scoring in double figures.
It was just one of those nights. One where Virginia Tech’s leader had to be helped off the floor. One that, because of the injury, has the potential to derail VT’s high hopes it had entering the season.
It’s well known that the Hokies have still set their eyes on an ACC crown and a Sweet 16 berth after qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 last season. And it’s no secret that Sheppard was a big part of the team’s success since she arrived as a five-star freshman in 2017.
Now, the chance at an ACC title and a deep run into the NCAA Tournament could be in jeopardy if Sheppard’s injury sidelines her for the long term.