To open the second half at Cassell Coliseum, No. 23 Virginia Tech couldn’t miss. In fact, the Hokies almost didn’t for the first five minutes.
They hit seven of their first nine shots, fueled by inside scoring. Only Cayla King attempted a 3-pointer, and that was towards the end of their run. The offense took off in the second half after VT trailed by two points heading into the break.
Elizabeth Kitley and Kayana Traylor scored two baskets down low, Emily Lytle and D’Asia Gregg added a bucket each, and of course King’s trey counted. But by the end of the run, the Hokies still trailed by two as Miami matched their effort basket for basket.
However, the hot start to the second half propelled the Hokies past Miami the rest of the way, 27-16. Outscoring the Hurricanes by nine points proved to be the difference maker as Virginia Tech ended Miami’s four-game win streak with a 70-63 victory on Thursday night at Cassell Coliseum.
“When the season’s over with, [the 13 ACC wins] will probably hit me then,” Tech head coach Kenny Brooks said. “When you get to 13, you just wanna win another one and continue on. This is a team we knew we had to compete at this high level coming into the season.”
Kitley scored 18 points and grabbed 12 boards on the way to her ACC-leading 13th double-double of the season. Aisha Sheppard, who was honored before the game for becoming Tech’s all-time leading scorer on Sunday against Louisville, added 16 on four 3-pointers. Off the bench, Lytle contributed 12 points and tied a season-high in treys with three.
The offensive outburst from those three was needed in the win, offsetting an unusually below-average defensive showing.
“Liz [Kitley] is a dawg,” Sheppard said. “She is the ACC Player of the Year. No question.”
The win marks the 13th for VT (21-7, 13-4 ACC) in conference play, the most in program history since joining the ACC in 2004. It also gave the Hokies their sixth victory in seven games, dating back to Boston College on Feb. 6, and gives them a chance to end the season on a high-note. No. 3 NC State rolls into town on Sunday, a team Brooks thinks his squad matches up well against.
“Hokie nation’s gonna show out, that’s what’s going to be different,” Brooks said. “Cassell is a home court advantage. When we played at Reynolds earlier in the year, it was loud, but we were able to cut [NC State’s] lead down to two points. We need the same atmosphere. If we can get this place rocking, it’s going to give us a tremendous advantage.”
For the first time in a few months, Virginia Tech clawed back and had to hang around a team that was slightly less-talented. Turnovers, missed shots and a few defensive lapses were at the core of VT’s problems. The Hokies almost coughed up a nine-point lead with 4:34 remaining.
But they didn’t allow Miami (16-11, 9-8) to draw closer than three points. Up by four with just over a minute left, Sheppard stepped back, wound up and released an unbalanced 3-pointer.
The shot went through the basket as it sent Cassell into a frenzy, extending Tech’s lead to seven points and effectively becoming the dagger her team needed. As if the shot wasn’t enough to rile up the fans, she blew a kiss to the fans as she backpedaled down the floor.
It was plays like Sheppard’s 3 that allowed the Hokies to shoot 9-of-22 (40.9%) from distance. But that comes as no surprise considering Tech is 15th in the nation in 3-point percentage (36.5%), above the likes of all its ACC foes except for No. 4 Louisville and NC State.
As VT has all season, it sends Kitley down low to draw the double team, only for a shooter to be open from distance. It’s a tried and true formula, one that’s led the Hokies to most of their wins this season. A gameplan Brooks knows he can rely on as his team aims to clinch the double-bye — awarded to the top four teams in the ACC Tournament — with a win on Sunday.
“You talk about [VT and NC State] that are very well matched, it’s a rivalry,” Brooks said. “It’s a healthy rivalry. There’s a lot of respect between the two programs. … They know this is a tough place to play.”