Hokies, Kenny Brooks Face Shawn Poppie-Led Mocs On Friday

Kenny Brooks and the Hokies open up NCAA tournament play on Friday vs. Chattanooga and Shawn Poppie, a familiar face. (Ivan Morozov)

Shawn Poppie helped Virginia Tech get to the mountaintop where it currently sits. He invested six years of his life into that program. Soon, he gets to view the Hokies from a different perspective.

Now the head coach at Chattanooga, a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament, Poppie returned to Blacksburg on Wednesday ahead of Friday’s clash with the No. 1-seeded Hokies.

“It’s full circle,” Poppie said in Thursday’s press conference. “I will never forget … our first game [at Virginia Tech vs. UNC Asheville] seven years ago. We sat on the sidelines. Coach [Kenny] Brooks looked at me and said, ‘We are going to build this.’”

Virginia Tech (27-4, 14-4 ACC) hasn’t lost since late January at Duke. It’s won 11 straight games, and 14 of the last 15. And it has an ACC championship to its name, the first in program history.

March Madness is back in Cassell Coliseum. (Ivan Morozov)

On top of that, it gets to host a subregional of the NCAA tournament in Cassell Coliseum, which was always an objective. It blew that out of the water, earning a No. 1 seed, surpassing the No. 4-seeded 1999 squad.

“Obviously, hosting was a goal and I’m glad that we achieved that,” Tech point guard Georgia Amoore said. “But in the grand scheme of things, we still have a lot more to try and achieve.”

The Hokies’ first test is against a squad that is familiar in style. That’s because Poppie learned from the way Brooks built up the Virginia Tech program and wanted to recreate it.

The Mocs (20-12, 9-5 SoCon) are strong defensively – they rank 16th in the country in scoring defense (54.7 points allowed per game) – and are solid from three (32%). Poppie even implemented some of the same sets that Tech runs.

Two-time ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley has plenty of NCAA tournament experience with the Hokies. (Ivan Morozov)

But as Chattanooga guard Yazz Wazeerud-Din said, the Hokies are “bigger than us, quicker than us.” So, how might the Mocs approach their first NCAA tournament game since 2017?

“I don’t think we can play traditional,” Poppie said. “If we go and be who we have been every game all year, [that] probably isn’t the best recipe to try to beat them. That means you are trying to have better players than they have.

“We know they are a really good basketball team. We have to take advantage of every opportunity that is given to us on the offensive end. We’re going to have to make some shots. Probably will try to change the pace of the game at times. But the bad news for us is they have seen just about everything. They’re old veterans.”

Indeed, many Virginia Tech players have been on this stage previously. Elizabeth Kitley, Cayla King, Georgia Amoore and D’asia Gregg are all playing in their third straight NCAA tournament. It’s the second for Kayana Traylor, too. Out of Tech’s core, forward Taylor Soule is the outlier. She never played this late into March at Boston College.

D’asia Gregg and the Hokies prepared all season for this moment. (Ivan Morozov)

Tech’s approach for the first round is interesting, though. Multiple players – Gregg, Amoore, King – mentioned not falling asleep on the defensive end and staying alert. They know what it’s like on the floor and how they can take you out of rhythm.

“It’s nothing we haven’t guarded before,” Amoore said. “And we’ve watched scout and practiced it, and it’s really up to us. It’s just that we don’t … get too comfortable playing against it because the point of a lot of our offense is to lull you to sleep and then attack. It’s probably the same philosophy.”

The Hokies know what to expect on the court against Chattanooga. As for the sea of maroon and orange in the stands, that’s another story.

It’ll be a sold-out arena of 8,925, just the second in program history, joining the 1999 NCAA Tournament vs. St. Peter’s. It’ll also be the fourth-largest women’s basketball crowd in Cassell Coliseum. Only the historic season in 1999 – when capacity was 10,052 and the team was 28-3 – drew higher attendance numbers.

The Hokies could advance to the Sweet 16 for the second time in program history if they can advance out of Blacksburg. (Ivan Morozov)

Poppie, who helped turn Virginia Tech into what it is in 2022-23, knows how rowdy it’ll get come 5:30 p.m. on Friday. He’s honored to have had a hand in its creation. And though he’ll do everything in his power to try and take it down for his Mocs, there’s a level of mutual respect that can never be taken away.

For both Virginia Tech and Chattanooga, it’s a unique moment. Poppie recruited many of the Tech players to Blacksburg. Then, using the lessons learned from Brooks & Co., he’ll try to bring the Hokies down on Friday.

But more importantly, the opportunity to return to Blacksburg for him and his family is special. His seven-year-old son, Kai, got to catch up with some of his friends he missed when he moved away. Poppie is back surrounded by people he created special bonds with for so many years. And for 40 minutes on Friday, he’ll try to win a big basketball game.

“I don’t think we would have gotten to this point without his loyalty and his dedication, his ability to just really dive in and make us better,” Brooks said. “I’ll always be appreciative, as I know he will, for the things that I did for him. [A] true friend, he’s a big part of our success as we continue on because he’s done a tremendous job for us.”

6 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Fun article. One question, though. Maybe I’m just not seeing it, but what year did Poppie leave to go to Chattanooga, and how many seasons has he been there?

    1. Left at end of last season…won his conference in 1st year at Chattanooga. Truly great coaching job by him and team!

  2. Really looking forward to these games – it will be a great atmosphere and I am sure it will be loud with (at least) 1500 students in attendance.

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