Photo Credit: Dave Knachel/Virginia Tech Athletics
The Virginia Tech Hokies defeated Pittsburgh 68-56 in Cassell Coliseum on Thursday evening for their second ACC win of the season.
Taja Cole and Aisha Sheppard led the way for the Hokies (12-3, 2-2), combining for 37 of Tech’s points.
Cole, the graduate senior from Richmond, scored 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting. While the 21 points were the most Cole has scored in a Virginia Tech uniform, she also contributed six rebounds and six assists.
“The first thing I said was ‘I don’t care what the stat sheet says, my eyeballs say thank gosh for Taja Cole,’” Kenny Brooks said postgame. “She carried us. When we needed a big basket, she got it. When we needed to be steadied, she did it… but we can’t just rely on Taja in this league to win the games we want to win. Everyone has to step up and do their part, whether things are going great or not.”
Thanks to strong shooting from Cole in the first half, in which she scored ten of her 21 points, the Hokies went on a few runs to take an 18-point lead.
The Panthers (3-12, 0-4) trailed by 13 at halftime and immediately cut the lead to single digits out of the break, but the Hokies kept the game out of reach with some much-needed baskets from Sheppard and Dara Mabrey.
Sheppard, the junior from Alexandria, finished with 16 points on 5-16 shooting. Though head coach Kenny Brooks said Sheppard lacked some focus throughout the game, he was impressed with her contributions.
Lydia Rivers had a strong evening for the Hokies as well. The graduate transfer from Kinston, North Carolina, registered 13 rebounds and eight points. Her performance in the paint gave the Hokies an edge against a Pittsburgh team that Brooks called “scrappy.”
Between Cole and Rivers, Brooks has been blessed with some veteran scorers and playmakers on this season’s team. He praised their in-game experience once again, saying it’s something he leans on in many situations.
“They’ve really steadied us a lot,” Brooks said. “Taja was terrific tonight and got the ball where it needed to go... Lydia offers the grit that is desperately needed with us losing [Regan] Magarity last season. They’ve been great for us and we knew they’d be impactful immediately.”
Despite the result, Brooks thought some of his players weren’t as into the game as they are usually – specifically Dara Mabrey and Aisha Sheppard.
“I didn’t think Aisha was as focused and as locked in as she normally has been,” Brooks said. “I think Dara let her shot dictate a lot of other things… she was trying to fix her shot in her mind when she probably should’ve been playing defense… We definitely had some stretches where improvement is needed.”
Mabrey scored just six points for Tech on 2-12 shooting, though she made her three-point baskets when Tech needed them most.
Freshman Elizabeth Kitley only attempted three field goals and scored three of her five points from the foul line, while also recording six rebounds. Kitley dealt with foul trouble for a good portion of the game, which gave Rivers and Trinity Baptiste a few more minutes.
Baptiste scored nine points on 3-13 shooting, making both of her attempts from the free throw line. She also had three rebounds, three steals and two blocks, giving the Hokies contributions in other places than just the scoring column.
Tech did not have their best shooting performance – 24.3% from three, 36.4% overall – but the Hokies forced 17 Panthers turnovers and limited Pitt to 39 percent shooting.
The Hokies controlled the tempo as well, something that Brooks said was a talking point with his team prior to the game. The Panthers played a full court press for most of the game against the Hokies, and Brooks was pleased with how his team handled the pressure – for the most part.
“I thought we handled their pressure well except for when we lost focus,” Brooks said. “They didn’t do anything that we didn’t think they were going to do. We knew they were going to shoot gaps and swarm the basketball. I thought we handled it except for a couple possessions where we lost our focus.
Though the performance was not the best of Tech’s season, Brooks said he’s very fortunate to come away with the win and happy about the result, but the Hokies have to be better.
Virginia Tech will get another chance to improve on Sunday when they travel to Durham to face Duke in their fifth ACC game of the season.