RALEIGH, N.C. — The No. 16 Hokies put on a clinic in a packed Reynolds Coliseum on Thursday night in their 72-61 victory over No. 3 NC State.
“Terrific win for us,” Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks said afterwards. “Obviously, any win in the ACC, especially on the road, is a terrific win, but NC State, they’re the staple of this conference, won so many championships, and we watched them and admired their success. … Just to be able to get a win here in itself is very tough. Tremendous performances all throughout.”
Tech (19-4, 10-2 ACC) won its sixth consecutive game this season and its fourth in the series by dominating the Wolfpack (20-3, 8-3) in all phases.
It was terrific defensively — for the fourth straight game, it held its opponent below 37 percent shooting — while it dominated on the glass once again. That, along with 11 3-pointers, 18 assists on 27 made baskets and two All-Americans — who Brooks joked run the pick-and-roll as well as John Stockton and Karl Malone — is a recipe for success, even against the No. 3 team in the land.
“Throughout the game, from start to finish, I thought they had an attitude that was really good,” Brooks said. “NC State took away some of the things that we really like to do. We kept our composure and we found the second opportunity or the third opportunity, and that’s growth. That’s growth, and if we can continue to do that, I think we’re going to be hard to guard.”
Tech used a 2-3 zone for much of the game, which was suffocating, but not in the way one might think. Though the Hokies don’t trap or gamble for steals, they constantly force difficult shots. The zone made NC State settle for outside looks, which is the key to beating the zone, and it didn’t hit them.
Tech stayed compact and connected on that end of the floor and improved as the game went on. Though the Wolfpack shot 43 percent in the first period, that number dropped to 35 percent in the second, 29 percent in the third and 36 percent in the fourth. It finished with just four assists, a season-low, and turned it over 10 times. Tech also blocked five shots — Elizabeth Kitley and Clara Strack had two apiece.
“We’ll admit that we’re not the best one-on-one defenders,” Tech guard Georgia Amoore said, “but we’re going to help each other out and push people to spots and when you have people like Liz and Clara on the court, you’re going to have a tough, contested shot. So it’s about using our strengths to our advantage, for sure, and we’ve figured that out and it might not be flashy and we might not be getting steals or flustering people like that, but I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”
Tech had an edge in the toughness department, too. It corralled the 50-50 balls, an aspect that often times flies under the radar because it isn’t in the box score.
Thursday marked the fifth outing in a row for the Hokies with double-digit offensive rebounds. They had 15, which they turned into 11 points, a crucial number in an extremely close contest. That really gave them a boost despite only making a 40 percent clip.
Kitley and Strack were crucial in that area and grabbed five apiece. Strack, the true freshman from Buffalo, N.Y., had a key sequence at the three-minute mark in the second quarter where she rebounded two missed 3-pointers from Cayla King and Amoore. King got the ball back on the wing and hit a trey to put the Hokies back up two, all made possible by Strack’s effort — which epitomized the game.
“Any time you’re playing against the No. 3 team in the country on the road, you have to win those battles,” Brooks said. “We were quick to the basketball, we understood it.”
“Great teams rebound,” NC State head coach Wes Moore said. “We just have to realize how hard you have to play and how you have to compete if you want to be at the top of the ACC.”
While the defense traveled, similar to recent outings in Chapel Hill and Syracuse, the offense made some more shots than it did at North Carolina on Sunday. In the previous game, Matilda Ekh and Cayla King were a combined 2-of-12 from the outside through three periods. On Thursday: Ekh finished 4-of-9, King 2-of-10.
Those shots fell in Raleigh, and early. Both players notched a triple in the first quarter. At halftime, they had combined for five. They both finished 4-of-10, meaning the top two weapons from deep for Virginia Tech were 8-of-20 (40%). Add in two 3-pointers from Amoore and a crucial one from Carleigh Wenzel at the end of the third quarter, which pushed the lead to 10, and Tech was really effective from long range.
Kitley was incredibly efficient down low and finished with 24 points on 12-of-24 shooting and 13 rebounds. She did not turn the ball over, which was crucial against a feisty NC State defense that doubled and put her in tough positions, while adding two assists, three steals and the aforementioned two blocks.
Though Amoore only scored 12 points, she was two rebounds shy of a triple-double while she dished out 10 assists. She controlled the flow of the game and didn’t really give into the Wolfpack’s pressure. The Aussie knocked down some clutch baskets when called upon, but she was calm and facilitated well with a good pace. She didn’t allow NC State to speed her up, even when facing full-court pressure; Virginia Tech seemed to break it with ease.
Around them, others thrived. Ekh (14 points, 7 rebounds) and King (13 points, 4 rebounds) were terrific, and the latter stayed out of foul trouble, a key in the majority of games, but particularly against NC State’s great group of guards.
Strack added five points to go along with her eight rebounds and two blocks, which included a nice 15-foot baseline jumper. Wenzel chipped in a three while stealing the ball twice and recording two assists. Olivia Summiel did not score, but her four boards and three assists did not go unnoticed.
“I think people have come into their roles and realized their roles nicely,” Kitley said. “Obviously, when you have the transfer portal and so many new pieces, it’s going to take a little while to really mesh and for people to realize what we need them to bring to the table, but I think Matilda has been doing an excellent job of that, Olivia has been doing an excellent job of that, Clara has been doing an excellent job of that.
“They’re bringing things that they weren’t necessarily bringing in November, but that just shows their willingness to learn and stick with it.”
Strack, who has come on well as of late, was on the floor much more this time around against NC State. After playing just two minutes on Jan. 7, she played 18 on Feb. 9. Part of that was how River Baldwin changed the game.
The 6-foot-5 center for the Wolfpack missed the previous meeting with an ankle injury, which meant the team went smaller and used more of its athleticism and quickness. Now healthy, Baldwin saw 24 minutes against Virginia Tech on Thursday — and had just four points on two attempts, two rebounds and three fouls.
Baldwin’s presence allowed the Hokies to play a bigger lineup with Strack (6-5) alongside Kitley (6-5) against her and Mimi Collins (6-3), and it was a big difference. In the previous game in Cassell Coliseum, Carys Baker (6-2) ate up a ton of those minutes (24) because she was a better fit for that matchup. And between the rejections, rebounds and buckets, Strack made her presence felt.
“Clara’s really good. Her only issue is she plays behind an All-American, so there’s not a whole lot of time to get there to be the focal point, but she’s found her way to be able to play alongside Liz,” Brooks said. “Liz loves playing with her, they have a really good connection and Clara’s been able to adapt and play against quicker players.”
Madison Hayes scored 20 points to lead NC State, nine of which came from the foul line, and brought in seven rebounds. Aziaha James had 17, all of which came in the first half; she was just 0-of-4 after intermission. Saniya Rivers contributed 12 points and six rebounds.
The victory was the Hokies’ third over a top-five team in their history, all of which have come against NC State. And the script has now flipped; a series the Wolfpack controlled for so many years, especially between 2020 and ‘22 when it won three consecutive ACC Tournament titles, is now all Virginia Tech.
Unlike last season, however, people around the country will likely start to pay attention to Tech now. That wasn’t the case in 2023 when it took winning an ACC title and earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament before it received much national recognition, and even then, it was a pro-Tennessee or -UConn narrative.
It’ll be much different this time around. The Hokies are more of a known commodity now, and a second win over the No. 3 team in the country — it’s the second straight year they’ve swept the Wolfpack — will turn some more heads now. And deservedly so. They sit alone at the top of the ACC, the best conference in college basketball, and are playing very well across the board.
Box Score: No. 16 Virginia Tech 72, No. 3 NC State 61
— David Cunningham (@therealdcunna) February 9, 2024