Virginia Tech’s buzzer-beater wasn’t rocket science.
The score was tied with two seconds left on the clock. The Hokies had the ball out of bounds and senior center Elizabeth Kitley — the reigning ACC Player of the Year — was on the court.
The Tar Heels knew where the ball was going. They had a plan in place. In the words of head coach Courtney Banghart, it wasn’t rocket science.
“We were going to switch everything,” Banghart said. “When the ball came in we were going to foul, which would put them at under a second left.”
The Hokies spoiled North Carolina’s senior night with a homecoming of their own. Greensboro-native Cayla King passed the ball to Kitley, her former high school teammate, who rose up for the 15-foot buzzer-beater. No. 9 Virginia Tech claimed a 61-59 win over No. 22 North Carolina, marking their fourth-straight game that’s been decided in either overtime or a final margin of less than five points.
“We should charge more for the Virginia Tech games because they’re classics — all of them,” Banghart said.
Despite the return of veteran players Eva Hodgson and Alyssa Ustby, the game was lost due to inexperience and miscommunication. On an in-bounds play to Kitley, redshirt first-year guard Kayla McPherson was supposed to switch with junior forward Anya Poole and foul Kitley. Instead, she stuck with her assigned player, freeing up Kitley for the game-winning shot.
Junior wing Kennedy Todd-Williams had little explanation to offer for the last play of the game. It was “just some miscommunication.”
Before the Tar Heels set up on defense with two seconds left, junior guard Deja Kelly motioned for her team to huddle around her. Staring intently into her teammates’ eyes, she reminded them of the game plan — “to switch everything and to talk about it.”
“So yeah, that was the talk,” she said, reflecting after the game. “It didn’t happen.”
Reminiscing about the eventual buzzer-beater play — a deep jumper from Kitley over the outstretched arms of Poole — Banghart joked that it was easy to be critical as she stood courtside in retro sneakers rather than game shoes.
Banghart offered her team grace. Things happen quickly. It was a missed coverage by some inexperienced players. Yadda yadda yadda.
However, the play wasn’t unpredictable. Virginia Tech head coach Kenny Brooks said the Hokies ran the same play twice in the game’s final minutes.
“It was just a misdirection,” he said. “(Kitley) went to set a screen first and then Georgia (Amoore) set a screen for her. We knew it was two seconds left, and we wanted to try to get her the ball. I’ve seen her shoot that shot a thousand times in practice.”
It wasn’t rocket science. It was a simple play, and a simple mistake by an inexperienced first-year.
Still, that simple fact offered little consolation to McPherson after the buzzer sounded.
While Kitley was swarmed by her teammates, McPherson walked over to the sidelines. Banghart wrapped her arm around McPherson’s shoulder, reminding the young guard that this play didn’t define her.
“It’s so hard, right, because these kids, they give you everything they’ve got,” Banghart said. “She’s heartbroken about it. She knows that she was supposed to switch, she knows that we had a foul to give. She knows it all. She’s bummed about it. So I reminded her that this is how quickly things happen in college, and she’s a huge piece of who we are and the game will break your heart if you let it.”
After handshake lines, McPherson walked to halfcourt to meet her team. As the Hokies began to jog back into the visitor’s locker room — chasing Kitley the entire way — McPherson took in the scene with a quick look over her shoulder.
She then put her hands on her knees and folded.
With Poole and Teonni Key by her side, offering pats on the back, McPherson collected her breath. She bit her lip and rose up to join the Tar Heels’ huddle.
With the absence of Ustby and Hodgson, McPherson’s minutes have drastically increased over the past six contests. After not playing in a live game for 800 days, the redshirt first-year guard has made an immediate impact in UNC’s rotation, averaging 10 points per game.
Moments like Thursday night are a reminder that she’s still a rookie.
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