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, in desperate need of a win that had eluded the team in the weeks prior. The Hokies had suffered narrow losses by six, 10, four, two, three, five and the two-point finish at NC State, yet still had the fourth-best NET ranking in the ACC.
“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,” Coach Brooks said in his office reflecting on the journey that the 2020-21 season has been. “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 and 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.
The six-game run in the ACC was the first of its kind for the program and featured an average margin of 11.5 points. Tech scored 70 or more in each contest, also a first when it comes to consecutive outings in the conference.
This season was certainly a unique one, filled with schedule adjustments, virus testing and protocols in place. The Hokies committed to playing the season and doing all that was necessary to compete, distancing, wearing masks and in a sense, isolating themselves.
“They were willing to do anything to make sure we had a season,” Brooks explained. “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. 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 jumped on board. She went through a lot her first couple years as we tried to change the culture, as we tried to implement a philosophy, she’s now reaping the benefits because she’s endured heartache, and she’s learned from the adversity. She’s learned so much that she can apply it to the successes that she’s having.
I think a lot of the successes she’s having is because she went through those hardships. Now, she’s one of the best guards in the country. She’s put herself in position to eventually become a professional basketball player.”
Sheppard scored 20 or more points in nine contests this season, second-most behind ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans and like Evans, scored in double figures in every regular season contest prior to playing the conference tournament in Greensboro.
The Alexandria, Virginia native averaged 18.3 points per game and scored 85 3-pointers breaking her own school record for 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. Sheppard’s 1,423 points is the eighth-most by a Hokie.
She also had a career season in terms of free throw shooting (79 of 93) and assists where she averaged a career-high 3.1 per contest.
“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 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, attitude and is a phenomenal student-athlete.”
Kitley, a sophomore, 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, North Carolina 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.”
With a dynamic duo like that garnering so much focus from opposing defenses, Tech searched for a consistent third option. Freshman point guard Georgia Amoore emerged as that option, playing a prominent role in a Power Five program nearly 10,000 miles from home in Victoria, Australia.
“Oh my gosh, she’s my heart,” Brooks beamed when talking about Amoore. “I knew from the very first day she practiced with us she was going to be a star. I knew it. It’s just what I coveted from a talent standpoint. She’s fast, she’s strong she shoots the basketball has a high basketball IQ.”
Amoore had a less than ideal start to the season, sitting on the bench due to foul trouble. She also had growing pains in the sense of adapting to American basketball. Brooks told the story late in the season how he taught her that she was allowed to receive an inbounds pass in the backcourt without accruing a violation, something FIBA rules do not allow.
“She only had five nonconference games and during those games she was in foul trouble the majority of the time so she didn’t get a whole lot of reps, didn’t get the reps that she needed,” Brooks said. “She went through some struggles her first five, six, seven ACC games, and just trying to figure it out. It wasn’t because of lack of talent, or because she didn’t know how. I thought she was trying too hard to try to do everything that I asked her to do and how to do it.
She finished the season averaging 11.5 points, 4.6 assists and 2.3 rebounds in 2020-21, culminating with an All-Freshman Team nod. The Australia native ranked fourth in the conference in assists and second in 3-point field goal percentage (41%).
She was awarded Freshman of the Week honors on February 15 after scoring 17 points on 5 of 6 shooting from beyond the arc and registering five assists and four steals in a 20-point win at Miami.
“When she stopped overthinking and got comfortable, we got comfortable and as a result it’s a direct correlation to our win streak,” Brooks said of his point guard’s play and how that impacted the team. “That’s about the same time she started to figure things out. When she became that third element, that third scorer, that person who was just running the show for us, we became the team we knew we could be. She went through it, got through it and got through it in a timely manner to where she’s taken us to a different level and we’re one of the better teams in our league.”
A revelation late in the season was the emergence of D’asia Gregg, a junior college transfer who was used sparingly in the earlier parts of the season but who has been relied upon of late.
“I’m very proud of her because right before that opportunity she took eight straight DNPs, coach’s decision, not because she was hurt, coach’s decision,” Brooks said. “During that period which was probably a month and half, without getting a minute, she always had a great attitude. Always in practice she’s the one that’s the chatter box, she’s the one that understood what the drills were.”
Gregg has averaged 20 minutes per game in the last 11 contests, which included seven wins and her first double-double, a 13-point, 10-rebound effort in the ACC Tournament against Miami. On the season, her numbers don’t stand out, 3.5 points and 3.6 rebounds but her impact has been felt.
“When she got her opportunity, she became ready,” Brooks recalled. “She didn’t have to look over her shoulder, played and she offers an element that we need to go along with Elizabeth Kitley. She shoots the basketball well enough where you have to guard her. D’asia has a high basketball IQ where she knows what plays to make and she’s been a huge part of our success. Her along with Azana Baines, they fill that four spot exactly how we’ve needed it and offered elements that we’ve needed that we weren’t getting earlier and as a result, we’ve won a lot of basketball games.”
Combined with Baines, the Hokies get 10 points and 10 rebounds from the four position each night, with both athletes having the ability to stretch the defense on the perimeter while also providing an interior presence.
QUOTING COACH BROOKS ON THE NCAA TOURNAMENT
•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 and that in itself is going to be something that we are always going to be proud of. 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.