Virginia Tech Faces Baylor With Sweet 16 Berth On The Line

Georgia Amoore and Virginia Tech can punch their ticket to the Sweet 16 on Sunday vs. Baylor. (Ivan Morozov)

Georgia Amoore was a freshman, Elizabeth Kitley and Cayla King sophomores, when Virginia Tech faced Baylor in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on March 23, 2021.

It was in the bubble in San Antonio, Texas, and the Bears were the reigning national champions from the 2018-19 season. (The 2019-20 tournament was canceled due to the pandemic.) They were a national powerhouse led by Kim Mulkey, and Tech — in its first NCAA Tournament in 15 years — was overwhelmed in its 90-48 loss.

However, those around Tech have referenced that game as a turning point in the program’s growth. They witnessed firsthand what it takes to be one of the great, perennial powers in college basketball. It was a defining moment in the careers of Amoore, King and Kitley, then young players still trying to help Tech gain a foothold in the ACC.

Three years later, the Hokies and Bears meet again in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, this time in Blacksburg. Two teams with identical 25-7 records, No. 4 seed Virginia Tech hosts No. 5 seed Baylor on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN in a sold-out Cassell Coliseum with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.

“I think bimonthly we joke about that game,” said Amoore on Saturday, recalling the previous meeting with Baylor. “And it’s been four years since. We were babies and we played against the likes of [DiJonai] Carrington, that team was insane. Obviously, Coach Mulkey was there, but that game for me was a defining factor, and playing against those girls and seeing the elite standard that they held themselves to, that was eye-opening for me.

“Last year, we were a No. 1 seed and were kind of in that position, so I think it really fulfilled itself.”

It’s a different story this time around. Tech’s 79-22 (.782) since that outing with two ACC championships — one tournament, one regular season — and a Final Four berth. It’s the higher seed, too.

Nicki Collen and Baylor stand in between Virginia Tech and the Sweet 16. (Ivan Morozov)

The Hokies are coming off a 92-49 victory over No. 13 seed Marshall in which their supporting cast was terrific. On the other side, the Bears beat No. 12 seed Vanderbilt 80-63 in an up-and-down contest.

Much was made about the Thundering Herd’s unique style of play leading up to Friday’s game, and while the Hokies handled that well, they also imposed their will defensively — an aspect that’s surprisingly been underrated all season. They’re 14th in the country in defensive efficiency, according to Ken Massey, and when they got hot earlier in the year, it was in large part due to how they guarded.

Rightfully so, much of the spotlight focused on the dynamic pick-and-roll duo of Amoore and Kitley. But in three straight ranked road wins at Syracuse, North Carolina and NC State in the middle of the regular-season schedule — all teams that advanced to the second round of the Big Dance — Virginia Tech held each below 36 percent shooting.

In its two games without Kitley in the ACC Tournament in early March, it was OK on that end of the floor. Its defensive prowess was crucial in its quarterfinal game against Miami. But against Notre Dame in the semifinals, the Irish shot 52 percent. Tech coach Kenny Brooks was blunt after the game: “I don’t think we were good at all defensively.”

Thirteen days later, it was sound against Marshall. Granted, the Herd plays an up-tempo style and takes more shots per game than almost anyone in the country, but holding the group to 24 percent was no small feat.

More than anything, they were locked in and focused on the scouting report. A similar mindset, and execution, will be crucial against Baylor on Sunday and for the rest of the postseason.

“I was very pleased with our defensive effort,” said Brooks of his squad’s Friday performance. “They followed the scout, and that’s when we’re pretty good. That’s what we do well. We follow the scout. We’re not going to go out and force 24 turnovers a game. We’re not going to go out and really take away a lot, but they followed the scout.

Virginia Tech was very good defensively against Marshall in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. (Ivan Morozov)

“And yesterday, we wanted to funnel Marshall to areas that we wanted them to play in. We knew that they were very aggressive on the 3-point line. We wanted to make sure we hit high hand on them all the time and contesting the 3-point shot, forcing them to penetrate, and our length really came into play during that because when they got towards the rim, we stayed with them and we contested the shot without bringing the help defense from the weak side so we were still in position to rebound the basketball.”

The Bears pose a more natural challenge. The AP Poll’s No. 19 team in the country — the Hokies are 13th — is veteran-led and was ranked as high as No. 4 this year. It starts two sophomores, a junior, a senior and one graduate student and has six ranked wins to its name: Utah, Miami, Texas, TCU and West Virginia (twice).

Sarah Andrews (5-6, Sr.) is the centerpiece. The lone player that stuck around when Nicki Collen took over as head coach in 2021 after Kim Mulkey dipped for LSU, she was a freshman on the team that beat Tech in Texas. She’s the second-leading scorer at 11 points per game and averages a team-best four assists per contest.

“When we started this season, we didn’t have anyone on our roster that had been at Baylor more than one year besides Sarah,” Collen said. “… So I think she’s been able to be a little bit of the stabilizer. I feel like as our freshmen turn to sophomores and learned a little better what we do and why we do it, Sarah is still the one that does the best job of not just understanding the play, but why we’re running it, who we’re running it for and what we’re looking for when we run it.

“So I think for her, she’s the one that can speak the best in a huddle when I’m not in it, when the coaches aren’t in it, in terms of what we need to do. … And just because she’s been such talented player as well, her voice carries weight.”

Kentucky transfer and Richmond, Va., native Jada Walker (5-7, Jr.) complements Andrews in the backcourt, as does Missouri transfer Aijha Blackwell (5-11, Gr.). Darianna Littlepage-Buggs (6-1, So.) and Bella Fontleroy (6-0, So.), the latter of which Tech heavily recruited, anchor the frontcourt. It’s a typical eight-woman rotation for Collen that also features Yaya Felder (5-8, Jr), Dre’Una Edwards (6-0, Gr.) — who has come off the bench as of late after starting 25 games earlier this season — and Jana Van Gytenbeek (5-7, Sr.).

Baylor’s one of the best in the country in defending the 3-point shot — it ranks seventh nationally in 3-point percentage defense (25.9%) — and takes care of the ball (14th in assists per game, 18.5). It’s crashes the boards well, too, and is 18th in the country in rebounding margin (7.7). For comparison, Virginia Tech is 20th.

Bella Fontleroy and Baylor pose quite the challenge for Virginia Tech on Sunday. (Ivan Morozov)

What’s it going to take to win on Sunday to advance to the Sweet 16? San Antonio native Carleigh Wenzel, who was offered by Baylor out of high school, said it comes down to the mindset.

“We held our ground, we fought for every rebound, even if we didn’t come up with it,” Wenzel said of the team’s psyche vs. Marshall. “So I feel like just coming in with that mentality again tomorrow, even if we aren’t going to get all of the 50-50 balls, just going as hard as we can for them will really make a difference in the game.”

The Bears are big, physical and used to playing in front of large crowds. They’ll be extremely motivated, too — Collen said her team watched Tech in the Final Four last year and understands what’s at stake. But the Hokies have won a program-record 26 games in a row in Cassell Coliseum, the fourth-longest streak in the country. Something’s going to give.

“It’s going to be a battle,” Brooks said, “and these are instances where you wish you had a 6-6 All-American available because I think that would have really given us an advantage in certain areas. But we don’t, and the expectation is no different. We’re going to go out there, and we feel like if we put our gameplan into use and we execute it, then we give ourselves a tremendous chance to win.”

2 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Play as well as last game and our Hokies advance. I’m hopeful that the girls continue to gel and improve. Looking forward to a raucous crowd to aid the team. Let’s Go…

  2. Living in Texas, I am really looking forward to this game. Nothing against Marshall, but Baylor is a major step up in competition. My guess is Coach Brooks will have our ladies going on all eight cylinders, which they will most definitely need to be. Cassell should be a total nuthouse tomorrow night.

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