For a split second, it looked like all the work No. 21 Virginia Tech did to claw back into the game without two crucial starters wouldn’t matter.
Cayla King was on the bench with a sprained ankle, and ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley left at the end of the first quarter with a shoulder injury. Yet, despite charging back, the Hokies’ momentum seemed to be slipping away.
With the eyes of the hometown North Carolina crowd squinting behind the UNC bench, the Tar Heels’ Eva Hodgson nailed a game-tying, buzzer-beating 3-pointer on the left wing at the end of regulation, sucking the energy out of the Hokies’ supporters and sending the game to overtime.
But halfway through the extra period with the score tied at 74, the Hokies and Heels traded baskets and D’asia Gregg missed the second of her two free throws.
Only having recorded two offensive rebounds all afternoon, it looked like the ball would trickle into the hands of No. 16 North Carolina. Except the basketball was corralled Emily Lytle.
Lytle, whose role has been fluid depending on the Hokies’ needs this season after being the focal point in Liberty’s offense last year, put the basketball back up and into the hoop for two points.
It gave No. 5-seeded Virginia Tech a 76-74 lead and it helped start a 10-0 run that Tech used to pull away in its 87-80 overtime victory over No. 4-seeded North Carolina Friday afternoon in the Greensboro Coliseum.
Guards Georgia Amoore and Aisha Sheppard led the way with 22 points each, while Kayana Traylor added 19. Gregg, meanwhile, scored 10 off the bench.
“Extremely proud of these kids,” Tech head coach Kenny Brooks said after the victory. “It’s probably one of the more gratifying wins of my career.”
Lytle’s go-ahead put back wouldn’t have been possible without Sheppard’s three free throws with 36 seconds left in the fourth quarter that tied the score at 66. Nor without Amoore’s drive to the paint, a layup through contact and subsequent free throw that gave Tech a three-point lead with 2.3 seconds on the clock.
“I said [to Amoore], look, you’ve got to play like you’re the best player on the floor right now,” Brooks said. “There’s no Liz [Kitley] out there, there’s no outlets, and you’re going to have to really dominate and dominate the ball and put the shot, but also facilitating for your teammates. And she did a tremendous job.”
The overtime win was the second in three tries in VT’s program history in the ACC Tournament. It also means that the Hokies will advance to the semifinals for the first time and face No. 1-seed NC State on Saturday at noon (ACC Network). The Wolfpack beat No. 9-seed Florida State by 30, 84-54, in the quarterfinals.
The Hokies and NC State matched up twice in the regular season, and the Wolfpack were victorious in both meetings. The most recent game was the regular season finale and came down to the wire. Aisha Sheppard had a potential game-winning 3-pointer fall short in Tech’s 68-66 loss. But that match-up looked a bit different than the one in Greensboro will.
King, who’s arguably the team’s best on-ball defender, sprained her right ankle in Thursday’s win over Clemson. Meanwhile, Kitley checked out of Friday’s game in the second quarter with a shoulder injury and sat the rest of the way. Brooks said he doesn’t expect her or King to play against the Pack with a potential NCAA Tournament run upcoming.
“Out of precaution, we decided not to play her,” Brooks said of Kitley’s status after the game. “It’s painful for her to lift it at the moment. We haven’t gotten her diagnosis of what’s going on with her yet. But she’s too valuable for us to try to put her back out there.
“Obviously with hopes of an NCAA run and with some time and some rest, we didn’t want to further injure anything right now, so we want to make sure we get it checked out.”
With close to half of the starting lineup out, Tech played arguably its grittiest game of the season. Just six players saw action after Kitley headed towards the locker room, but VT matched UNC’s physicality well by taking hard falls and picking itself back up each time.
“If we can handle physicality — we are a finesse team, we are a three-point shooting team,” Brooks said. “… But what we’re proving is that we can go out there and we can play a physical style, as well, and beat you at that game, as well.”
Without Kitley, though, Virginia Tech got a taste of the challenges it faces without her on the floor — especially down low. North Carolina recorded five offensive rebounds with Kitley off the floor in the second quarter, seven total in the first half. That led to eight second chance points with 22 points in the paint, but the Hokies corrected that after the break.
“We wanted to do it for each other, we wanted to do it for Liz [Kitley] and Cayla [King], because obviously they wanted to be out there and couldn’t,” Traylor said after starting in place of King. “So we just wanted to make sure that we left everything out on the floor and didn’t have any regrets.”
Tech used a combination of Gregg and Azana Baines at the 5-spot to stifle the Tar Heels in the paint. UNC didn’t record an offensive rebound until the 7:16-mark in the fourth quarter. The Tar Heels had just three the rest of the way, and only three second chance points.
The Hokies also coerced North Carolina into more 3-pointers and just 12 points in the paint in the second half and overtime. And it was Tech who got more aggressive as it shot 21 free throws — making 19 of them — after halftime.
Virginia Tech showed its resiliency. Even after Kitley checked out, they never trailed by double-digits — the highest the deficit reached was nine right with 6:19 left in the second quarter, seconds before Kitley left for the final time.
The team continues to find ways to grind out wins. If Virginia Tech can beat a team like UNC that was ranked sixth in the NET rankings without the ACC’s Player of the Year and its best on-ball defender, there’s no telling how far this team can go in March if Kitley and King are healthy.
“We came this far, we might as well win it,” Amoore said of Tech’s mentality heading into Saturday’s ACC Tournament semifinal.