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2023 NCAA Women's Tournament: Virginia Tech vs Tennessee Preview and Pick

Kitley Amoore Gregg King VT Syracuse 2023 From VT
Will Locklin | @locklin_will
Writer/Basketball Analyst

When the Hokies and Volunteers tip-off Saturday night in the Sweet 16, they’ll be a little more than familiar foes. Despite being in two separate conferences, Virginia Tech and Tennessee have faced each other twice in the last two seasons. Back in 2021, Tech hosted Tennessee in a game that saw the Volunteers pick up a signature road win, beating the Hokies 64-58 at Cassell Coliseum. In the second half of the scheduled home and home series, Tech got their revenge against a banged up Lady Vols squad who were in a rut after falling out of the AP Top 25 poll the week before.

This is also the second time Tech has faced Tennessee in the Sweet 16 having played them in their only other appearance in this round in 1999 when the 4 seed Hokies lost in Greensboro to the top seeded Lady Vols.

A lot has changed for both teams since that early December bout, namely who’s healthy and active for Tennessee. The Lady Vols leading scorer Rickea Jackson was inactive due to a coaches decision prior to the earlier season matchup. Jackson finished the regular season averaging over 19 points a contest and shooting nearly 55% from the field. Even without their best player, Tennessee still nearly climbed their way back to a win over Tech.

The Lady Vols also lost their starting center Tamari Key who hasn't played since that game and played a big role in slowing down Liz Kitley in the first game.

If you remember, the Hokies had a 12-point lead thanks to a 10-0 run in the third quarter that was powered by Kayana Traylor. While Traylor is a mainstay in Tech’s starting five now, she had been coming off the bench to that point in the year. Traylor put in a team-high 18 points and with the services of 11 points from Cayla King and 10 from D’Asia Gregg, Tech had enough offense to get past Tennessee. Interestingly enough, the Hokies All-ACC First Team stars Liz Kitley and Georgia Amoore were held in check offensively.

Tech fans may not remember the day Amoore and Kitley were both off their game but it happened against the Lady Volunteers as they combined for just 16 points and shot 5-27 from the floor together. Kitley had six points herself, the second lowest point total of the year for the two-time ACC Player of the Year.

While there’s some push back in Hokie Nation over some of the major media slotting in Tennessee as an Elite Eight team already, they’ll have a really good shot to get their revenge on Tech on Saturday.

How Tennessee Can Win:

Through a rock solid defensive scheme that involved diverting a ton of attention towards Kitley, Tennessee was able to not only slow her down but also slow down the Tech offense. Holding the Hokies to under 60 points is a feat not too many teams have done yet the Lady Vols did. They forced others on Tech to beat them, which they did, and threw a constant swarm of bodies at Kitley. When coach Brooks talks about Kitley being triple teamed and taking a beating, the game against Tennessee is surely one of the first that comes to mind.

Extending past that game, Tennessee dealt with a string of losses in their non-conference slate including defeats to Big 10 foes like Ohio State and Indiana. After the rough start, the Lady Vols kicked their act into high gear, going on an eight game win streak as soon as SEC play started. Tennessee beat the likes of Kentucky, Mississippi State, Georgia and others while only losing to LSU and South Carolina in conference play.

The Vols are certainly battle tested and a much different team than they were back in December. Jackson and Jordan Horston, who scored 26 points against Tech, lead the way offensively in what is a top 20 unit nationally. The Lady Vols net over 77 points per game and have scored 80 or more in five of their last six wins.

The fact that Tennessee was able to hold Kitley and Amoore in check while returning one of the best scorers in the country to the court against the Hokies should give us all pause when deciding the winner here.

How Virginia Tech Can Win:

Speaking of being a different team, Virginia Tech is just night and day different from December until now. Don’t get me wrong, they were plenty good back in the non-conference schedule. However, the Hokies have turned into a different beast since.

Winners of their last 13 contests, Tech has connected all their pieces together at just the right time. Specifically though, how can this time around be different for Kitley and Amoore?

As previously mentioned, both struggled against Tennessee despite a Tech win. For Kitley, let’s look at how she bounced back against Duke. In the first matchup of the season, she scored a season-low four points. Once she and Brooks tinkered with the right ways to use her against the Blue Devils top five nationally ranked defense, Kitley scored 20 points in their second game at Cassell Coliseum. If Kitley and Brooks found a way around Duke’s stifling defense, they can do it against Tennessee too. Tennessee not having center Tamari Key should also help some in terms of a potential clear size advantage this time for Kitley.

On the flip side, Amoore has taken the necessary leap in her game to counter when teams try to load up on Kitley. When Tennessee focused on Kitley, Amoore was unable to do damage from the perimeter. However, given the incredible spell Amoore is on, I wouldn’t bet on that being the case again.

The ACC Tournament MVP has played just as well as Kitley and their dynamic on the court has never been stronger. The dynamics have shifted for Kitley and Amoore enough to the point where they’ll be more productive the second time around.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 75, Tennessee 71

While having Jackson for the Lady Vols will help a ton, it won’t be enough to take down one of the hottest teams in the sport. Virginia Tech is firing on all cylinders game in and game out. The Hokies are more prepared for Tennessee's game plan this time around and with Amoore being the difference maker, Tech will out score the Vols in a shootout.

Expect this one to be an offensive game on both sides, but with Tech once again barely surviving the grasp of Tennessee and advancing to the Elite 8 for the first time in program history.

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