In a season where the Virginia Tech Women’s Basketball team reached a new standard, their postseason hopes were dashed in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament as they suffered a 84-81 loss to No. 12 seeded Florida Gulf Coast University.
When the tournament field was revealed on Sunday, it showed a daunting draw for the Hokies as they were going to take on a 29-2 squad that was nationally ranked in the AP Poll. Although not an ideal battle for a team that earned a No. 5 seed, all they could do was to lay it out on the court.
The main concern for Kenny Brooks and Co. was if they will be healthy before the contest, and as Elizabeth Kitley and Cayla King participated in the warm-ups, he confirmed that the team was ready to roll.
After going down with a shoulder injury in the first quarter of the ACC Tournament quarterfinal matchup against North Carolina, Kitley returned to the hardwood with one of the best performances in Virginia Tech history with a school record 42 points on 16-27 shooting.
Returning to the court as well on Friday was King, who came off the bench for the Hokies, but was held scoreless in the afternoon.
Knowing that the Hokies were going to need a great offensive output to take down the Eagles, they delivered a promising start by converting on 53.3% of their shots though they did not attempt a single three-pointer other than Georgia Amoore's buzzer beater attempt at the end of the first quarter.
But the Eagles played to their bread and butter and shot 15 three-pointers in the opening period, and they hit six of those attempts en route to a 24-point first quarter to the afternoon.
Trailing by four points going into the second quarter, the Hokies switched up their offensive scheme and turned to three-point shooting by throwing up eight attempts and were quite successful by knocking down half of their deep balls.
While the offense was starting to find their groove, their defense had a productive outing as they held the Eagles to 15 points in the second quarter. After 20 minutes of play, the matchup was truly a back-and-forth battle, just in tune with what everybody was expecting when this game was announced.
With the first half behind both sides, only one point could separate these two sides and a breakout start to the third quarter could spark another shift in the momentum.
It has been noted multiple times this season that the Hokies have been known to have slow starts to the second half - but a poor jump out of the break could spell the end of the year.
That wasn’t the case from either side in the opening minutes of the third quarter as both teams continued to exchange blows. The game began to open up for the Eagles a bit at the seven minute mark as they went on a 7-0 run, which forced Virginia Tech to use a timeout.
Following the 7-0 run, the Eagles sat at one of their largest advantages of the night, and they did a splendid job to hold onto that edge throughout the remainder of the quarter.
With 10 minutes remaining, the Hokies were officially into desperation mode and were in need to fast start to the final quarter. And that’s exactly what occurred, a 6-0 run all by Kitley erased their six-point deficit.
It only took 90 seconds for the Hokies to see their best offensive showing of the game and with that production, they once again entered a heavyweight fight with the Eagles.
For a moment of time, the Hokies thought that they secured a huge break when FGCU starting PG Kerstie Phills fouled out of the contest with 6:29 remaining, but just like they had been doing all game long, the Eagles would not back down.
For about seven minutes in the Xfinity Center, the teams on both ends of the floor started to hit much-needed buckets keeping the margin within five down the stretch.
As the game approached clutch time, the Eagles took a huge step towards the winning result with a Kierstan Bell lay-up with just over one minute to go. And then the dagger came from a left corner three-pointer by Karli Seay to put the Eagles up by five and out of reach of the Hokies, securing their place into the Round of 32.
Even after shooting over 60 percent from the floor in the fourth quarter, it wasn’t enough for the Hokies to keep up with the Eagles’ star players in Bell (22 points), Tishara Morehouse (13 points) and Seay (12 points).
For many people that support the Hokies, this will be a tough loss to swallow.
It didn’t seem right that Florida Gulf Coast was given a No. 12 seed after a phenomenal season in the Atlantic Sun. But to their credit, finding out that they only earned a seed that low incentivized the Eagles to show the committee and nation that they shouldn’t be messed with.
For Virginia Tech, it’s all about building towards the future.
There are no doubts that this was an incredible campaign from Virginia Tech, and the steps taken this year will help move the program transition towards brighter days.
One loss doesn’t define a season, and although this means the end of Aisha Sheppard’s collegiate career and an ACC Player of the Year season for Kitley, this program has gone above and beyond the expectations that were in place even five years ago.