GREENSBORO, N.C. — Having played each other five times since the beginning of last season, the Tar Heels knew what to expect from Virginia Tech.
Towering 6-foot-6 center Elizabeth Kitley, the ACC Player of the Year and All-ACC Defensive Team member, would give North Carolina the most trouble.
The UNC women’s basketball team fell to Virginia Tech, 87-80, in an overtime thriller at the Greensboro Coliseum on Friday. But Kitley — who averages 32 minutes for the Hokies — only played 11, due to an apparent shoulder injury.
“We felt like we had our reads and how we were defending certain actions,” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “When (Kitley) goes out — although she’s a premier player for them — that changed a lot of how we were gonna defend on certain quadrants of the floor.”
With Kitley sidelined early and without an interior presence, the Hokies needed shots to fall, particularly from behind the arc. Also absent was sharpshooter Cayla King, who had injured her ankle the day before against Clemson.
But despite the injuries, the top 3-point shooting team in the ACC did not disappoint.
The Hokie backcourt unleashed a torrent of 3-pointers from Aisha Sheppard, Georgia Amoore and Kayana Traylor. The trio combined for 63 points, with 10 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip. Sheppard, the ACC’s all-time leading 3-point shooter, exploded for 22 points after a quiet first half.
“Our coverages were not good, especially on Sheppard and Amoore,” UNC sophomore guard Deja Kelly said. “They literally were able to do whatever they wanted.”
Kelly scored 14 points in the second half and looked almost unguardable in the fourth quarter. Her signature move — a pull-up mid-range jumper — helped the Tar Heels, especially when the Hokies took their first lead of the game late in the third quarter.
But every time Kelly scored, Sheppard had an answer — usually from downtown.
And if it wasn’t Sheppard, it was Amoore. The tandem often ran the same play — a quick dribble hand-off along the wings. Without Kitley to slow down the pace of the offense, the Hokies looked free-flowing, relaxed and in rhythm — swinging the ball to each other with ease, exploiting UNC miscommunications and finding an open shooter.
Yet the teams found themselves tied 63-63 with 6.8 seconds left, Virginia Tech ball. Amoore powered her way to the basket for an and-1 layup and knocked down the subsequent free throw.
With 2.3 seconds left, North Carolina inbounded the ball to sophomore guard Alyssa Ustby, who found a wide-open Eva Hodgson on the left-wing. The redshirt junior guard drained the 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
“I remember looking to Deja and we’re both like, ‘The game’s not over,’” Ustby said.
For the first three minutes of overtime, the same trends persisted. UNC found a way to score, but Sheppard knocked down a three. Eventually, Virginia Tech pulled away with a quick 9-0 scoring run bolstered by another triplet of free throws, this time by Amoore.
UNC’s early exit in the ACC Tournament is a wake-up call to a relatively young team with little postseason experience. After the loss, Banghart noted that although the team expected more physicality due to higher stakes, such an intangible concept is hard to fully grasp without experiencing it firsthand.
“This is a great learning opportunity,” Banghart said. “Wherever we end up in the NCAA Tournament, we have this as an example.”
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