BLACKSBURG – In January, Virginia Tech held a 14-point lead over the second-ranked team in the nation in their own building early in the fourth quarter before NC State was able to put together a 30-14 run in the final eight-plus minutes of the game to earn an 89-87 victory.
The loss left the Hokies at 7-7 overall and 2-7 in conference games, their season apparently in ruins.
But now with the regular season and a remarkable turnaround behind them, they are on their way to San Antonio Texas to take on Marquette as the number-seven seed at noon Sunday in the River Walk Regional.
“When I look back at January 24, and we lost a two-point game to NC State in a heartbreaking fashion, and you would’ve fast forwarded and said in March we’re going to be sitting pretty and have a great opportunity to be in the NCAA Tournament, I would’ve signed up for that seven days in the week,” Head Coach Kenny Brooks said in his office as he reflected on the journey that the 2020-21 season has been for his women’s team.
“To actually think about that month and a half that we went through and how much we grew up when we very well could’ve folded and we didn’t,” Brooks said. Instead, “We continued to grow, and I think that is going to bode well for our attitude and our mentality for the future.”
Following that contest in Raleigh, the Hokies and Wolfpack matched up again four days later in Cassell Coliseum. Tech once again held a lead and State needed a desperation heave by reserve center Camille Hobby to send the game to overtime. In the moments following the basket, according to Brooks, the team faced a choice. He told the huddle prior to the start of the extra session that ‘If anyone thinks we’re not going to win, leave, get out.’ The response was overwhelming.
Tech scored an NCAA record 26 points in the extra five minutes, including 18 from All-Conference guard Aisha Sheppard, who finished with 28 in the game. The Hokies walked off 83-71 winners and celebrated the program’s first ever win over an AP top-five ranked team.
That game kick-started this team’s season with a six-game winning streak that made the Hokies one of the hottest teams in the nation at the end of the season.
“They were willing to do anything to make sure we had a season,” Brooks said about his team and the players’ struggles to find normality amid the coronavirus epidemic and the havoc it wreaked with the season. “They don’t have a normal life, this isn’t what you envision when you think about college. They go from the gym, straight back to their apartments, and see the same four walls. It can take a toll on you – from a physical standpoint, but also a mental standpoint. “But they’ve continued to truck on and get up with a smile on their face,” Brooks said. “They’ve done everything they’ve had to do to get to this point where they can go compete for a national championship. That goes to show you a disciplined team that’s willing to sacrifice, and I think that’s why they’re in the position they’re in.”
The 2020-21 season was a special one for the Hokies on the floor as well, suiting up a dynamic duo in center Elizabeth Kitley and Sheppard. “Both of those young ladies are very near and dear to my heart,” Brooks said. “They are special to me, but also special to this program.”
The pair finished second and third in scoring in the conference and were both recognized as First Team All-ACC players, the first time that two Hokies have earned the honor in the same season since joining the league in 2004.
“Aisha Sheppard was really the first kid that I signed,” Brooks said thinking back to his first days in Blacksburg. “I shared a vision with her and she took a blind leap of faith in understanding what my vision was, not only for her, but for this program, and she jumped on board.”
Sheppard scored 20 or more points in nine contests this season, second-most behind ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans, and like Evans, she scored in double figures in every regular season contest prior to playing the conference tournament in Greensboro.
Sheppard averaged 18.3 points per game and hit 85 3-pointers, breaking her own school record for the most in a single season. Her career total of 304 ranks first in Virginia Tech history and is eighth all-time for an ACC player. Her 1,423 points is the eighth-most by a Hokie.
“Elizabeth Kitley has come in here and proven she’s one of the best players in the country – especially at her position,” Brooks said of his 6-5 sophomore center. “She’s going to propel your program, but she does it in a fashion that’s a coach’s dream. She’s a tremendous player, has a great work ethic and attitude and is a phenomenal student-athlete.”
Kitley is a finalist for the Lisa Leslie Award, given annually to the top center in the women’s game at the collegiate level. Late in the season, she was the only player in America to average 18 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 assists. Although she finished just south of that incredible stat line, the Summerfield, N.C., native did tally an ACC-high 13 double-doubles.
She ranked in the top five of the league in numerous categories including; points, rebounds, blocks, free throws made and field goal percentage. Kitley was the only athlete in the league to register two games of 30 points this season, and she also recorded a 21-rebound game against Wake Forest, tying a program record.
“I think before it’s all said and done Sheppard will probably graduate from Virginia Tech as the most decorated women’s basketball player ever and she’ll hold that mantle for two years and then Liz will probably graduate as the most decorated women’s basketball player in Virginia Tech history,” Brooks predicted. “We’re very fortunate that we get to witness both of them at the same time, but as great of basketball players as they are, and great ambassadors that they are for our program, they are even better people.”
Speaking of the NCAA Tournament, Brooks said. “For anyone who hasn’t experienced the NCAA Tournament, it’s a treat. Being able to go being at the highest level, just the buzz surrounding it, the professionalism that goes into the tournament, it’s a feeling that you’ll never forget.
“I’m hoping we will be able to do something to the point where we can bring a little bit of San Antonio back with us memory-wise. But just the fact of being able to go, the accomplishment of being able to go, the hard work and the legacy that is a part of going to the NCAA Tournament will always follow these young ladies. “That in itself is going to be something that we are always going to be proud of,” the head Hokie said.
“I’m proud of them for being able to accomplish something like that. I just hope we are able to experience a little bit of it other than sitting at the hotel.”