UNC falters against shorthanded Virginia Tech

The Tar Heels failed to take advantage of the absence of ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley on the way to an early exit from the ACC Women's Basketball Tournament

UNC's Eva Hodgson has the ball knocked away from her by Virginia Tech's Emily Lytle during Friday's ACC Tournament quarterfinal game in Greensboro. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

GREENSBORO — It was all right there for the North Carolina women’s basketball team Friday.

Not only did the fourth-seeded Tar Heels have the benefit of a double bye into the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, allowing them an extra day of rest against opponent Virginia Tech, but they also got the benefit of not having to face ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley after she was injured in the first quarter.

They didn’t make the most of their advantage.

Plagued by fouls, some balky perimeter shooting and outhustled at key moments by the more determined Hokies, UNC was sent home with an 87-80 overtime loss at Greensboro Coliseum.

It was a setback that didn’t just eliminate the Tar Heels from the event, it also likely cost them an opportunity to host the first two rounds of the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

Perhaps, as coach Courtney Banghart suggested afterward, they thought it was going to be easy once Kitley went out.

“I didn’t think this was a game that we earned,” said Banghart, who is now 0-3 in ACC Tournament games since coming to Chapel Hill in 2020.

Even though Kitley got off to a quick start, making her first three shots and scoring six of her team’s first eight points, it was UNC (23-6) that jumped on top early, surprising Tech with a zone defense that helped produce a run of nine straight points midway through the opening quarter.

UNC’s Carlie Littlefield drives on Virginia Tech star Elizabeth Kitley before the ACC Player of the Year left the game with an injury late in the first quarter. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

The Tar Heels maintained a lead through the rest of the period, then appeared to get a huge break with only a second remaining when Kitley crashed to the floor after committing a foul, injuring her shoulder. 

But instead of UNC taking over against a decidedly smaller lineup, it was the fifth-seeded Hokies that seemed to become energized without its star 6-foot-6 junior.

“Once we saw Liz go down, it kind of hurt us all emotionally,” Tech point guard Georgia Amoore said. “But at that point in time, there’s nothing to do but to do it. We came this far, we might as well win it. I think we just really did a good job of pulling together.”

While the Hokies (23-8) were galvanized by the loss of their best player, the unexpected development and the adjustments it forced coach Kenny Brooks into making had the opposite effect on UNC.

After shooting 63.4% from the floor during the opening 10 minutes, including a combined 7 of 8 from the floor by the duo of Alyssa Ustby and Kennedy Todd-Williams, the Tar Heels slumped to 31.6% in the second quarter.

And they struggled with their offensive rhythm the rest of the way.

“We felt like we had our reads and how we were defending certain actions, and then when (Kitley) goes out, that changed a lot of how we were going to defend on certain quadrants of the floor. So we had to change on the fly,” Banghart said. “We should be able to do that.

“They had a tough time making the adjustment, hearing it and doing it, which you could say you expect from a young team. But I think the biggest help is the whole March mentality of ‘survive and advance.’ Unfortunately, you don’t really get it until it hits you.”

Banghart’s Tar Heels got a vivid illustration of what the urgency of March looks like during the second courtesy of the Hokies, who were also missing starting guard Cayla King thanks to an ankle injury suffered in Thursday’s opening round win against Boston College.

First, they tightened up on defense, an effort that was aided by UNC’s decision to keep shooting from 3-point range — where they made just 7 of 20 — rather than pounding the ball inside to take advantage of Kitley’s absence.

Then they started making shots. 

Led by Amoore, Aisha Sheppard and Kayana Traylor, who combined to account for 10 of their team’s 11 3-pointers, Tech put together a 17-4 run late in the third quarter to turn an eight-point deficit into a 50-45 advantage.

Amoore, the smallest player on the court, finished with 22 points to tie Sheppard for game-high scoring honors.

Her biggest basket of the night came with 2.3 seconds remaining in regulation when she drove to the basket, scored and made the and-one free throw put the Hokies ahead 69-66. 

UNC’s Eva Hodgson shots her 3-pointer as time expired in regulation to send Friday’s ACC Women’s Tournament game against Virginia Tech into overtime. (PJ Ward-Brown/ North State Journal)

UNC forced overtime when Eva Hodgson hit a dramatic 3-pointer at the buzzer, but that was the Tar Heels’ last hurrah.  

“After Eva’s shot, there was a lot of momentum obviously,” said Ustby, who matched teammate Deja Kelly with 18 points before fouling in overtime. “There was a big mob in the middle of the court, and I remember looking at Deja and we were both like, ‘The game is not over.’ We were just trying to kind of gather that momentum and take it into the overtime with us rather than losing our focus.”

But that’s what happened. 

Tech took control in the extra period by making its final 11 free throws. But it was one that it missed that provided the game’s tipping point. It came with the score tied at 74 with 2:36 remaining. 

Emily Lytle rebounded D’asia Gregg’s miss and scored to spark a 10-0 run that ultimately decided the game and sent the Hokies into Saturday’s semifinal matchup with top-seeded NC State.

“That offensive rebound, the stick back was huge for us,” Brooks said, calling the play “ironic,” since his team was outscored 15-4 on second-chance points. “It gave us momentum when it seemed like we were kind of just climbing an uphill battle and that really put us over the top.”