CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — No. 17 Virginia Tech repelled No. 24 North Carolina in overtime in Sunday’s matinee in Carmichael Arena for its fifth straight victory, 70-61.
“Good win for us, very proud of my kids,” Tech head coach Kenny Brooks said. “Wasn’t always pretty — they’ll be the first to admit that — but it was a very resilient effort by everyone. … This win will go a long way.”
The Hokies (18-4, 9-2 ACC) won their second straight road game against a ranked foe despite shooting just 34 percent (24-of-71). But they defended the fire out of the Tar Heels (15-8, 7-4), who shot 32 percent (21 of 66), and grinded out the result over the course of 45 minutes, which gave them sole possession of second place in the conference.
An overtime game was fitting for a series that has been extremely close over the past three seasons. Three of the last five meetings have been decided by five or fewer points; the other two went to overtime. The Hokies won all five.
The teams are very familiar with each other as a result. Brooks said he didn’t think either team ran a play successfully all afternoon. Instead, it was decided by who was better at the little things — which was Virginia Tech.
While UNC’s Deja Kelly went for a game-high 26 points, 13 of those came from the foul line. From the floor, she was 6 of 24. Alyssa Utsby and Lexi Donarski were both 5 of 11 with 10 and 12 points each, respectively, but they couldn’t create their own looks. Donarski scored seven of hers in the first half, too, while all of Utsby’s came after intermission.
Tech played about as well as Brooks drew it up. Though it might’ve fouled too much, it took away just about everything the Tar Heels do well, including post presence Maria Gakdeng, who was 1-for-6 with two points and three turnovers. And while Alexandra Zelaya hit two pivotal 3-pointers from the top of the key, it wasn’t sustainable, evident in the 1-of-8 mark in the overtime period.
The Hokies locked things down across the board. Clara Strack led the team with two blocks while Matilda Ekh, Olivia Summiel and Elizabeth Kitley each had one. With Cayla King on the bench in foul trouble in the first half, Carleigh Wenzel entered and defended Kelly extremely well.
“We’re not going to get out and trap you and we don’t have a lock-down defender on our team, but collectively, we play as a group and we rely on each other to help and put people in positions,” Brooks said. “And then we’re going to contest shots … and the rebound the basketball. That’s been our philosophy, has been from Day 1, and the kids are starting to figure out their roles in it.”
Where it truly felt like the game was decided was on the other side. Tech started the game well — 6 of 14 (43%) in the first quarter — before tapering off in the middle two periods, plagued by eight turnovers and poor 3-point shooting. Through 30 minutes, King and Ekh were a combined 3-for-13 from behind the arc.
Then the Hokies flipped the switch they so desperately needed. Two free throws by Georgia Amoore, who led the team with 21 points and 11 assists, at the end of the third quarter tied the game. And then it got into more of a rhythm with King, Ekh and Amoore each drilling treys to steady the ship.
The middle one from Ekh was the result of a tremendous hustle play from Summiel and King, a play which epitomized the game. The former dove for the ball in the corner in front of UNC’s bench and saved it to King, who found an outlet in Amoore. The ball found Ekh on the wing for a good look from three.
And despite UNC scoring the last four points in regulation to tie things up, Tech had a chance at the very end. King missed two looks from the outside in the final 62 seconds, but Amoore drew a charge on Utsby — she called it pure instinct after the game — which didn’t allow her to get a shot off. Instead, it set up one final possession for Tech.
— David Cunningham (@therealdcunna) February 4, 2024
Unlike last year where Kitley hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer, Amoore’s shot didn’t fall, signaling extra basketball. But the Hokies punched the Tar Heels in the mouth just nine seconds into overtime, courtesy of a three from Ekh — she played all 45 minutes and finished with 14 points, going 4 of 9 from three and grabbing a season-high eight rebounds — and outscored UNC 16-7 the rest of the way.
“She’s definitely getting comfortable,” Amoore said of Ekh, whose first basket was a jumper right before the halftime buzzer sounded. “And I think a lot of us really try and place emphasis on for her to keep shooting. Tilly is one of those girls [that] her confidence goes as her shot goes. I think earlier this year, she wasn’t really making as many as she wished. … But she’s kind of hitting big shots for us and it’s carrying over her confidence into other aspects of her game.”
On paper, the win was ugly — Kitley (15 points, 15 rebounds) and Amoore were a combined 13-for-42 (31%) while the team was 12 of 35 (34%) from long range. However, Virginia Tech made the crucial plays needed to win, highlighted in the 52-40 rebounding margin. It was plus-12 in the second half, 31-19, and scored 20 crucial second-chance points.
“It was huge for us in the last few games,” Brooks said, referencing wins over Syracuse, Virginia and North Carolina. “The way we’ve been able to essentially dominate the boards in the last three games this past week has really helped put us over the top.”
It didn’t let the offensive struggles impact the defensive end either. Afterward, Kitley spoke of the importance of a short-term memory. She and Amoore kept a clear mind despite not hitting shots for certain stretches of the game, taking the floor after timeouts with the thought of the game being a clean slate.
Amoore put it plainly: “I can be 6 of 21, I do not care. We won. That’s what I care about.”
At a point in the fourth quarter, Kitley was 4 of 15; she finished the game 3 of 6. Amoore made four of her first 16 attempts through three quarters but hit two of her last five, both of which were treys.
“I think the main thing that helps us is our short-term memory has really increased,” Kitley said. “Every timeout basically, even if we’re up by 10 or somebody just missed four shots in a row, we say it’s 0-0. We just forget all about things that went wrong because dwelling on that isn’t going to help us at all.
“Over the last few weeks, that’s been huge for us and I think that’s helped Tilly step up and be better, I think that’s helped Liv step up into her role. And obviously me and Georgia have to have that mentality because as leaders of the team, we have to be strong mentally, and that’s what we were able to do tonight.”
It’s the ability to gut out victories like Sunday’s that put the Hokies in position to win the ACC regular season title. They’re 9-2 with seven games remaining, four of which come against ranked foes, and have won 13 of their last 15, including five in a row. What’s more, if No. 5 NC State beats No. 16 Louisville on Monday in Raleigh, Virginia Tech jumps into first place in the league.
After beating No. 21 Syracuse in Upstate New York on Jan. 28, Brooks said it was a step in a positive direction that his group was able to overcome an off-day from Kitley. On Sunday in Chapel Hill, Tech won with defense and rebounding, despite not shooting well.
To reel off wins of that caliber — on the road against two teams in the top half of the ACC — while overcoming adversity is the sign of a good team. The Hokies certainly are that, and they’ll have yet another chance to prove it in Raleigh against the aforementioned Wolfpack on Thursday.
“We took some hard losses early in ACC play, but having this under our belt and getting the Syracuse win as well has shown how we’ve been able to come together and finish games,” Kitley said. “And even through adversity, I think other players are able to step up a lot more and have more confidence, and that’s going to be huge for us if we want to make deep runs.”
Box Score (OT): No. 17 Virginia Tech 70, No. 24 North Carolina 61
— David Cunningham (@therealdcunna) February 4, 2024