Aisha Sheppard picked up her dribble on the left wing 19 seconds past the halfway point in the third quarter for Virginia Tech. She cocked the ball back and released her shot, which found the bottom of the basket.
On the next play, D’Asia Gregg broke the rhythm of Connecticut transfer Mir McLean, whose waiver was approved just an hour before tip-off. The 2020 McDonald’s All-American was having her way down low (5-of-7, 11 points at that point) until Gregg’s pressure forced her to miss.
Gregg, who played the majority of the second half at the 5 due to an injury to Elizabeth Kitley, grabbed the rebound and fired an outlet pass to Aisha Sheppard to kickstart Virginia Tech’s transition offense. Sheppard quickly located a wide-open Georgia Amoore at the other end, tossed a pass to her, and the Australian made good on an easy transition 3-pointer, extending the Hokies’ lead to 21.
Though Virginia was within 10 points at the half, it was sequences like those in the second half that allowed Virginia Tech (15-5, 7-3 ACC) to walk out of John Paul Jones Arena with a 71-42 win over the Cavaliers (3-14, 0-7 ACC). The Hokies leaned on 41 combined points from Amoore (21 points, 8-of-16) and Sheppard (20 points, 6-of-11) in a breakaway second half, in which they outscored the Cavaliers by 19.
“In the second half, I thought [Sheppard and Amoore] were tremendous,” Tech head coach Kenny Brooks said. “They really got us going with the 3-ball and in the fourth quarter, we were just more-or-less running some clock and running some stuff.”
ESPN gave Virginia Tech an 85% chance to win heading into Thursday night’s game. Yet VT made it a little more difficult when it only led 11-9 heading into the first media timeout. But the Hokies struck back with a 9-1 run and led by 10 at the end of the first quarter.
Virginia Tech’s defense — particularly Gregg’s halftime adjustments — held McLean from taking over the scoring as she did in the second quarter. UVa went toe-to-toe with VT, equalling the Hokies’ 13 points in the period, 11 of which came from McLean.
It could have taken a turn for the worst, as Brooks said. Kitley departed with 1:49 left in the first quarter with a “groin injury” after she took a knee to the hip, as described by Brooks. He said he hopes it’s “just sore” since she was kneed in the same place a few weeks ago.
With Kitley out of the picture, Azana Baines initially took on the assignment of McLean. She torched the Hokies, which forced Brooks to make some halftime adjustments. Once the second half began, Virginia Tech leaned on the knowledge and defensive ability of Gregg, who didn’t allow McLean to score a basket for the rest of the night.
“D’Asia Gregg is one of the smartest players that we have,” Brooks said. “I swear she could coach once she finishes. … She gets it, she knows the angles.”
Aside from the second quarter where the Hokies struggled, the offense had its way, shooting 50% in the first quarter, 57.1% in the third (including a 6-of-8 stroke from deep), and 44.4% in the final.
After trailing by three points early in the first period, Virginia Tech embarked on a 14-1 run over the final 6:04. Cayla King got the party started with a trey to tie the game at nine, while Elizabeth Kitley contributed with a layup on the next possession. Amoore got on the board with a jumper and a 3, while Kayana Traylor drove to the hoop twice.
In the second quarter, McLean single-handedly kept UVa within striking distance — a poor VT 1-of-10 shooting from deep in the quarter certainly helped — as Virginia Tech went into halftime with a 10-point lead.
But that’s when Gregg and the rest of the defense locked in. As she forced McLean to miss both of her shots in the third quarter, the Virginia Tech offense took off. Using Amoore’s and Sheppard’s 6-of-7 performance from deep in the third quarter, the Hokies outscored McLean and the rest of her team, 24-12.
Sheppard bounced back from her 3-of-12 performance on Sunday in the team’s loss to then-No. 4 NC State, knocking down 5-of-9 attempts from behind the arc.
“She’s such a rhythm shooter,” Brooks said of his fifth-year guard. “I had to stop practice the other day to get her into a rhythm. I had her shoot one, she made that. Then I had her shoot another until she got into her rhythm.”
By the fourth quarter, Virginia had lost the momentum it had built in the first half. The Cavaliers took fewer threes, were unable to drive into the paint, and turned the ball over 19 times. That’s what allowed Virginia Tech to take advantage as it scored 23 points off turnovers and held onto a double-digit lead — showing the maturity of Brooks’ team while Kitley was on the sideline.
“So proud of our kids because they had to face adversity,” Brooks said. “They handled that well.”