Virginia Tech is headed to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women's Tournament for the first time since 1999 after the Hokies used a dominant 46-23 first half to beat South Dakota State 72-60. Here's a look at my takeaways from Tech's win over the Jackrabbits.
1. Offense Shows Its Top Form In First Half
The first half of this game may have been the best 20-minute stretch of the season on offense for the Hokies. In process, Tech put up 46 points while shooting over 50% from the field and from three plus a pair of big runs of 18-2 and 10-0 that blew this game open.
So how did the Hokies do it? Where Elizabeth Kitley credits Tech's ball movement as a big reason why along with the obvious on-fire three-point shooting start for Tech.
"I think we were just shooting really well. I think we were moving the ball really well. We weren't settling, we were just taking really good shots. I think we were also taking advantage of offensive rebounds. That's what it felt like at least," Kitley said.
You could see South Dakota State slowly being forced to shift their defense more towards the three and away from their defensive spacing that created tight windows for getting the ball to Liz Kitley. Once that shift happened, Kitley hit her stride while also dominating the glass and getting multiple second chance buckets to help widen the gap.
Now Tech may not be able to shoot that well every game, but it wasn't like they were just making tough shoots. Rather, there was plenty of good ball movement especially for players like Cayla King who are snipers from deep when they got even a little bit of space on a catch-and-shoot opportunity.
Tech has played inside-out a lot this season, but the fact that they were able to adapt well to being outside first then taking advantage of the South Dakota State adjustment to feed Kitley and continue their dominance is a great indication that the Hokies are finding their form.
2. The Value of Kayana Traylor
A big reason for Virginia Tech's offensive success in this game and an important piece throughout the season has been Kayana Traylor.
She shined in the Hokies' win over the Jackrabbits with 11 points on 5-8 shooting plus 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and a team-best +14 plus/minus. She was a key cog in the Hokies' success with her high level of play making it not seem like a coincidence that Tech struggled in the third quarter when she was mostly on the bench due to foul trouble.
Her big performance came after she had an injury scare earlier this week as Kenny Brooks shared postgame which Brooks encouraging Traylor to enjoy the moment playing big NCAA Tournament games.
"Right before the game, I said, look, I want to look out there and I want you to have a smile on your face the whole game because you're playing loose and free, and she came out and she gave us a big spark in the first half, helped us a lot in the second half, did a great job defensively, and very proud of her, very happy for her," Traylor said.
Traylor's value goes beyond being another quality scoring option, but also because she is a second floor general for the Hokies who can allow Georgia Amoore to work off the ball at times. Traylor also has been strong on the defensive end and can create shots off her own dribble like we see Amoore do often out of the backcourt.
Having the luxury of two high-level floor generals like Amoore and Traylor is an under-the-radar reason for Tech's success this season on the offensive end.
"She's always so huge and she doesn't get as much recognition as she should. On defense, she's a juggernaut, she's incredible. But even just the way she attacks and how smart she is off the pick-and-rolls. That's something we really value as a team because she's a really smart guard," Amoore said.
Kayana Traylor was a big reason for Tech's strong offensive first half, and a key piece for Tech's hopes of going all the way and winning a title.
3. Grinding Out Wins
The Hokies clearly didn't have their best stuff in the second half while South Dakota State came out with desperation. It showed in the physicality and aggressiveness of the Jackrabbits who were able to start to make things uncomfortable.
While there's definitely a slight wake-up call that the Hokies got with their third quarter struggles, Tech found a way to not only grind out this victory but also never let this lead get below double digits with some big shots and plays in the fourth quarter. Tech is definitely this as a wake-up call of sorts though as Georgia Amoore shared postgame.
"I think we could definitely make it easier on ourselves but not succumbing to other people's aggression. I think Chattanooga even went on a run like that in the beginning of the second half, and we just can't allow that to happen. But we learned from it, and I'm glad that we did the Chattanooga game, and this game we'll have to take away from it, too," Amoore said.
To win a national title, you have to know how to grind out victories when things aren't going your way. Now having a 23-point lead at halftime helps, but this team still kept the Jackrabbits at arm's length as shown by SD State getting this game no closer than 10 in the fourth. Elsewhere, we saw fellow 1 seed Stanford not have their best stuff and when the heat turned up at the end, the Cardinal couldn't get it done with 8 seed Ole Miss pulling the upset.
Learning how to grind out wins in March is a big plus in a tournament that will require it with Tech taking encouragement in that even if they were a little disappointed with even being drawn into that situation in the second half. Being able to win a grind-out game like this without letting it get within double digits is also a sign of growth for this team as well.
"I just think it shows our growth over the year. Maybe earlier in the season, we would have let the lead slip a little bit more. We had a goal in mind, we knew we wanted to get the win, it was a pride thing and so we stuck it out, got some stops when we needed to, and pulled out the W," Taylor Soule said.
As Amoore mentioned, Tech would have rather just cruised to a dominant win, but having to grind this one out may not only be a valuable lesson, but a more important encouragement that they can grind out wins when things aren't going 100% right for them.