Virginia Tech raced past Louisville, 75-67, to claim their first ACC Tournament title in program history on Sunday.
Georgia Amoore lead the way for the Hokies with 25 points, and was named tournament MVP, after scoring a tournament-best 14 3-pointers in three games. Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley added 20 points and Taylor Soule had 13.
Kenny Brooks, who became the first Black coach to win an ACC title, credited his players for their work ethic.
“I knew when these kids and they committed to us, I knew eventually, we were going to be playing for different things and they proved me right and they worked diligently everyday,” he said.
Thanks to the win, Tech is now projected to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and have won their last 11 matchups. This particular win required them to withstand great pressure from the Cardinals, on both offense and defense.
Louisville made several runs at the end to make the game close, but always, there was either Amoore or Kitley or Soule to get a bucket when their team needed it. Meanwhile, the Cardinals were dependent on Chrislyn Carr (27 points), Hailey Van Lith (12 points) and Olivia Cochran (11 points) respectively, even though Van Lith shot 24 percent from the field.
Up next for not just these two teams, but the entire ACC is Selection Sunday next weekend.
In Saturday’s semifinals, the third time was the charm for Louisville, as they finally beat Notre Dame, 64-38, after losing to them twice in the past two weeks by a combined 5 points. Hailey Van Lith once again led the way for the Cardinals with 15 points, and was supported by Olivia Cochran (12 points), Chirslyn Carr (10 points) and Mykasa Robinson (10 points).
The Irish had just seven field goals in the first half and saw four players with at least three fouls: Sonia Citron, Maddy Westbeld, KK Bransford and Lauren Ebo. Citron, in particular, was double-teamed every time she brought the ball up the court as their primary ball handler, with Olivia Miles still injured.
“They came out obviously denying Sonia and were double-teaming and put all their best defenders on her,” Westbeld said. “I would just say that they were very strategic in the way that they came out and played.”
The relentless Louisville defense forced Notre Dame into just 31.4 percent overall shooting and three quarters of 7, 8 and 9 points respectively. Eventually, Van Lith heated up with 11 points in the second half, which allowed for her team to pull away.
“My coaches and my teammates were telling me to keep shooting, so I just kept getting to the same spots I got to in the first half,” Van Lith said. “It wasn’t really a different mentality or anything. I kept the same mindset.”
In the other semifinal match, Virginia Tech overcame a slow start to bury Duke, 58-37. Georgia Amoore was responsible for over 40 percent of the Hokies’ points with 24, to go along with 7 assists.
Even though ACC player of the year Elizabeth Kitley scored just 8 points, her impact was still huge, as the Blue Devils focused so much of their attention on slowing her down with multiple defenders – including Kennedy Brown – in the paint that it allowed for the perimeter to be open for Amoore as well as Cayla King (7 points).
“We were not as disciplined as we needed to be in that first half and as a result, they got open looks and when you give them open looks, they’re probably the best team in the league in making you pay for it,” Duke coach Kara Lawson said.
The game was close at first, as Virginia Tech led 13-9 at the end of the first quarter and led 19-18 at the 6:18 mark of the second quarter, but after that, they embarked on a 17-0 run to go into halftime leading 36-18. It was all about the 3-ball for both teams, as Duke kept missing them and Amoore was making them.
Things remained the same in the second half, as the Blue Devils never were able to cut the deficit down to single digits, and Amoore made six 3-pointers. It was their 10th straight win – their last being to the Blue Devils earlier in the season.
“It wasn’t pretty all the time, but I think that’s the way that they made the game, but we had some really good performances and a very balanced attack,” Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks said.
Hailey Van Lith definitely didn’t feel the early morning rust as she dropped 26 points, including 17 of her team’s first 20 points, in Louisville’s 74-48 win over Wake Forest Friday. She was 62.5 percent from the 3-point line, as she did most of her damage from there in the first quarter, where the Cardinals led 20-8 and never looked back. This late-morning win kicked off the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament.
Despite missing conference assist leader Olivia Miles, Notre Dame was able to hold off NC State, 66-60, who were also missing Diamond Johnson. Sonia Citron (28 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two steals) and Maddy Westbeld (15 points and 10 rebounds) more than picked up the slack. Notre Dame and Louisville will face each other for a third time this season in the semifinals on Saturday.
Duke edges out North Carolina in triangle defensive slugfest
This game was a true throwback to blacktop basketball as it was what people would call a knockout, dragout fight as Duke Blue defeated their triangle rival North Carolina, 44-40. It was not only the lowest-scoring game of this rivalry, but also the fewest points ever scored by a winning team in the ACC Tournament.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we were able to figure out a way to get it done, which is all you need to do in a tournament like this,” Duke coach Kara Lawson said.
Defense really did rule the day as the Blue Devils and Tar Heels shot 32 percent and 24.2 percent from the field, respectively. Both teams combined for 31 turnovers as they took turns just giving the ball away with bad passes, on occasion. Duke and North Carolina really ran down the shot clock on their possessions as they both applied heavy defensive pressure on each other, really forcing each other into taking bad shots and making ill-advised passes.
The pressure was so much that the score was 9-8 in favor of the Blue Devils at the end of the first quarter. Their 13 turnovers allowed the Tar Heels to take a 24-19 lead at halftime and in the third quarter, it got even chillier as just as it looked like North Carolina was about to make it a double-digit lead, Duke once again turned up the heat and had two blocks in a row from Reigan Richardson and Elizabeth Balogun to help make it 30-26.
The Blue Devils eventually ended the quarter on a 13-6 run and only trailed 36-34 at the start of the fourth. The physicality didn’t stop as there were multiple instances of players from both teams crashing to the floor for loose balls as they combined for 14 points in the entire quarter. In the end, it was Richardson, Balogun and Shayeann Day-Wilson, who scored at the crucial points.
The last gasp for the Tar Heels was a busted play that wound up in a 3-point attempt by Kennedy Todd-Williams that was blocked by Richardson with four seconds left. After being swept by North Carolina in the regular season, they finally beat them when it mattered the most.
“Two really good teams and a great basketball game today,” North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart. “You never want to be the one that loses, but somehow, it’s not really fair. Someone’s got to lose these games.”
Virginia Tech blows Miami off of the floor
This game was literally over by the end of the first quarter, when Virginia Tech led Miami 20-5. Elizabeth Kitley and Georgia Amoore once again shined for the winners with 22 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks on 55 percent shooting and 16 points on five 3-pointers, respectively.
The Hokies also dominated on the boards, as they outrebounded the Hurricanes 50-37 – most notably in terms of offensive rebounding 19-13. All in all, Virginia Tech almost had three players with doubles-doubles: Kitley, Taylor Soule (13 points, 10 rebounds and five assists) and D’asia Gregg (9 points and 13 rebounds).
“They’re very connected with each other and what’s going on both ends of the floor,” Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks said. “They’re very pleased with what they’re doing, and they look good.”
Kitley’s post game was truly unmatched, as she was often double-teamed and sometimes triple-teamed, and yet still managed to fight her way to the rim for buckets, while making great use of her outside-the-paint shot, as well.
When they play on Saturday, Duke will definitely have their hands full as the nation’s third-best scoring defense will be tested by her post moves and skills.
There were really no surprises in the first round of the ACC Tournament, as all of the higher ranked seeds won their games.
No. 12 seed Wake Forest captured a 68-57 victory over No. 13 Virginia, as Jewel Spear had 19 points on 46.7 percent shooting as well as three rebounds, two assists and two steals.
It was a game that Wake Forest led the entire way, as they shot 45.5 percent from the field with 34 paint points. That allowed them to break the game open in the third quarter after being up 28-25 at halftime, and they managed to score that same amount of points in that period alone.
Virginia made a run near the end, but by that point it was too late, and Wake Forest held on to face the No. 5 seed Florida State Seminoles on Thursday. For the Demon Deacons, Elise Williams was the other double-digit scorer with 16 points, three rebounds, three assists and four steals. Camryn Taylor (19 points, eight rebounds and three steals) and Alexia Smith (14 points, four rebounds and three assists) were the double-digit scorers for the Cavaliers.
Clemson gets boost from Hank against Pitt
Clemson’s 44 percent 3-point shooting, as well as a massive defensive second quarter where they only allowed 4 points, proved to be the difference maker in defeating Pitt, 71-53. Hannah Hank was the Tigers’ leading scorer with 19 points, seven rebounds, three assists, one steal and two blocks.
“That’s what you expect from your seniors is when the moment’s the biggest and then they bring their best,” Clemson head coach Amanda Butler said.
On the Panther side of things, this served as the final game for seniors Amber Brown (16 points, four rebounds, two assists and one block) and Dayshanette Harris (12 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals) respectively.
“I’m so proud of this team, especially this group of seniors that has been so resilient all season long to battle and fight and so we’re not defined by our record, but they’re going to be great young women in the world and I’m excited to be a part of that,” Pitt coach Lance White said.
The two other double-digit scorers for the Tigers were Daisha Bradford (15 points, two rebounds, six assists and four steals) and Amari Robinson (10 points, eight rebounds and four assists). Clemson played the No. 7 seed North Carolina Tar Heels Thursday.
Boston College survives against Georgia Tech
Georgia Tech’s 27-point fourth quarter wasn’t enough to avoid a season-ending 62-57 loss to Boston College. Both teams had single-digit quarters, as the Eagles scored 9 points in the first and later went on to hold the Yellow Jackets to 6 points in the second.
That second quarter made all the difference, as Georgia Tech was unable to overcome Boston College’s 45-25 rebounding advantage in a game where the former shot just 25 percent from 3-point range and 66.7percent from the free-throw line. Meanwhile, the Yellow Jackets shot 42 percent from the field and 75 percent from the free-throw line.
The Eagles’ top performers were Makia Gakdeng (14 points, seven rebounds and three assists) and Dontavia Waggoner (16 points, seven rebounds and three steals), with the latter helping to give them a 23-5 advantage in bench scoring.
Leading the way for the Yellow Jackets was Bianca Jackson (19 points) and ACC All-Freshman Tonie Morgan (18 points, six rebounds and four assists). Boston College faced off against the No. 6 seed Miami Hurricanes on Thursday.
The second round of the ACC Tournament is already off to a great start, with Wake Forest pulling off a shocker by rallying back from an 18-point halftime deficit to defeat No. 5 Florida State, 65-54. This is the second largest second-half comeback in the history of the ACC Tournament, behind only Duke’s 20-point comeback in 1995.
The Demon Deacons were sparked by Jewel Spear. After a scoreless first half, she ignited for 19 in the last two frames. It was part of a third quarter barrage, where Wake Forest outscored their opponents, 29-8. The catalyst for it was Spear, who had 11 points, including 5 points to tie the game and take the lead.
Other key players for the Demon Decons were Alexandria Scruggs (7 points, four rebounds, two assists and two blocks), whose timely layups managed to keep the team within striking distance. Demeara Hinds (12 points, nine rebounds and four steals) also scored 10 of her points in the first half to stop the game from getting too out of hand. Also, Olivia Summiel (13 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four blocks) was a major source of energy on both ends in the second half.
Wake Forest was able to win despite not having Kaia Harrison. On the other side, the Seminoles were missing ACC Freshman of the Year Ta’Niya Latson with an undisclosed injury. Filling in for her was O’Mariah Gordon (12 points and three assists). Erin Howard (12 points and seven rebounds) and ACC Most Improved Player Makayla Timpson (14 points, nine rebounds and three steals).
Unfortunately, Florida State couldn’t overcome a third quarter where they missed 14 of their 15 field goal attempts, and where Gordon spent a good portion on the bench because she wasn’t used to playing so many minutes according to her head coach Brooke Wyckoff. Wake Forest moves on to play No. 4 seed Louisville Friday.
NC State ousts Syracuse without Diamond in the rough
No. 8 seed NC State defeated No. 9 Syracuse, 83-58, despite not having Diamond Johnson, due to injury. The magic number for River Baldwin was seven, as she was 7-for-7 from the field with 14 points (seven multiplied by two) and also had seven rebounds.
The Wolfpack took advantage of the Orange’s 10 turnovers for 9 points, and even were able to hold Dyaisha Fair, the ACC’s second leading scorer, to just 23.5 percent shooting. As a team, Syracuse shot just 32.8 percent, despite having four players in double-figures: Fair (11 points), Georgia Woolley (14 points), Teisha Hyman (15 points) and Dariauna Lewis (11 points).
Meanwhile, for NC State, they managed to blow a game wide open that they lead 32-26 at halftime by scoring 51 points in the last 20 minutes. The Wolfpack were also able to overcome 17 turnovers by shooting 60.7 percent from the field. Other double-digit scorers were Jakia-Brown Turner (16 points), Camille Hobby (16 points), Madison Hayes (10 points) and Aziaha James (10 points). They will play top seed seed Notre Dame Friday.
North Carolina defeats another Carolina school, Clemson
North Carolina edged out Clemson, 68-58. Alyssa Ustby lead the way with 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals. She was aided by Kennedy Todd-Williams (12 points, four rebounds and four steals), Eva Hodgson (13 points and four assists) and Deja Kelly (14 points).
Amari Robinson carried the Tigers offensively, as she scored 27 of their 58 points and was the lone roster member in double-digits. She shot 75 percent from the field, and added five rebounds. The Tar Heels will play their Triangle rival, No. 2 Duke, Friday.
Miami pulls away from Boston College
What was a close game throughout three quarters became a rout, as Miami beat out Boston College, 84-69. The Hurricanes led 60-56 at the end of the third quarter before outsourcing them 24-13 in the fourth.
The key stat was that Miami scored 24 points off of turnovers, compared to just 14 points for the Eagles. The Hurricanes play No. 3 Virginia Tech Friday.
If there was any doubt left over Utah’s explosive rise to the top this season, it was erased once and for all this past Saturday, on their home floor, after their last regular-season game.
The Utes grabbed a share of the Pac-12 title with a tenacious victory over conference stalwart Stanford, marking their first conference title and just their second victory in program history over the Cardinal. The gutsy win showcased how the team has made their surprising rise to new heights.
Utah led Stanford from midway through a dominant 25-17 second quarter, but were challenged late in the game by a 10-2 Cardinal run that cut their lead to 1. Far from collapsing under pressure, sophomore Giana Kneepkens drained a three out of a timeout, and the defense forced their opponents into three consecutive turnovers in the final minute to seal the 84-78 win.
Yet, as Utah ascended to a No. 3 ranking for the first time in school history this week, there are still doubters. But coach Lynne Roberts accepts the reality of being underrated, and even welcomes it.
“I kind of love it because you have to have a chip on your shoulder,” she said. “People still don’t think we’re legit.”
“It’s like OK, bring it on. And, you know, we have a whole roster and players and the staff that loves the lack of respect and just kind of the patting you on the head like, ‘Oh, you guys are pretty good, huh?’ And we’re like, ‘OK, sure.’”
Confidence, timely shooting, and sterling defense have driven a very young team – five sophomores and three juniors log double-digit minutes- to a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. (The latest NCAA Tournament Reveal made the Utes a top seed, by far the best in their history).
Utah finished regular-season play 25-3, and 15-3 in the Pac-12. But until recently, they have received no respect. Not a single one of their games have been nationally televised, while the other projected No. 1 seeds participated in 19 national TV games. (South Carolina-10; Indiana-4; Stanford-5).
Two seasons ago the Utes won just five games, while last season they surged to 21 victories, making the NCAA tournament and losing in the second round. Significantly, only two current team members – Kelsey Rees and Peyton McFarland – experienced that forgettable losing season, but eight were part of last year’s surge. That winning ethos is driving this season’s talented team.
Roberts, named Pac-12 coach of the year this week, has built a deep team in which nine players average double-digit minutes. Utah boasts the nation’s fourth-highest scoring average (84.4 ppg) and field goal percentage (48.9). Notably, that offensive power is spread throughout the team, with just three players averaging double figure scoring.
The team’s offensive success has much to do with sharing the ball, and protecting it to maximize possessions. The seven players with the most minutes each have more assists than turnovers. Four players have more than 70 assists for the season, and the team ranks sixth in the nation in total assists. Utah exemplifies the “good shot-better shot” philosophy to which most teams aspire, but only the best attain.
And they run. Not haphazardly, but at every reasonable opportunity.
“The only thing that would stop us from running is not getting stops defensively,” sophomore forward Jenna Johnson said. “We have big motors, and definitely the other team wears down before we do. And when they start wearing down, it makes me want to run harder.”
With three starters and four players shooting over 38 percent from beyond the arc, the Utes spread the floor well. The team attempts 24 threes per game, and their passing prowess makes covering all those shooters difficult. Teams that try to guard the perimeter have to deal one-on-one with forward and Pac-12 player of the year Alissa Pili inside, a formidable task. (More on that later.)
A scrappy and opportunistic defense complements Utah’s efficient offense. They rotate and communicate well on defense, and put opponents in uncomfortable situations. Though the team’s 7.2 steals per game is not outstanding, they seem to save them for key moments, like two in the final minute against Stanford. Six players have more than 20 steals this season.
The face of the team, and its leader in both points (20.6 ppg) and rebounds (5.5 rpg), is Pili, who transferred in this year from USC. The 6-2 junior forward is 15th in the nation in field goal percentage (.599), and leads the Pac-12 in both scoring and percentage.
Pili was three time Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year in high school, then Pac-12 freshman of the year for the Trojans. Injuries slowed her in her next two years, and she lost some of her enthusiasm for the game.
Seeking a change, she entered the transfer portal.
“I feel like my junior year at USC, I just kind of fell into some bad habits and got uncomfortable in that environment,” Pili said recently. “So I needed to just have a fresh start to reset my mindset and just go somewhere new where I was going to be pushed and supported by people around me.”
All seem to agree that her fit in Salt Lake City has been perfect.
“It’s a system where team basketball is a big thing and everybody shares the rock,” Pili said. “That’s just the best kind of program to be a part of.”
Roberts was thrilled to see Pili pop up in the portal.
“Alyssa is she will deny this, but I swear it’s true,” Roberts said. “I tried to call her in high school but she never returned my calls. She says, ‘I never got ‘em,’ but I think she did.”
“And so when she when her name popped up, we immediately just jumped on it and got in touch with her. She visited and I think she just felt like it was the right fit. And we told her my vision for how good I think she could be in our system. What she needed to do to be as good as she knew she could be. And it just worked out.”
Asked what Pili “needed to do,” Roberts was characteristically straightforward.
“She was not in great shape,” the coach said. “The last year or two, she seemed unmotivated.”
“And so the system that we play, the style we play, she needed to get in shape. And I told her, ‘you’re going to have to adapt to us. We’re not going to adapt to you.’ And we’ll give you every support you could possibly want, but it’s up to you.’”
Pili accepted the challenge.
“And to her credit, and her credit only, she did it,” Roberts said. “And she’s just has shown incredible commitment. She’s a competitor, and she didn’t like the trajectory she was headed on and she made the changes.”
Another aspect of Utah’s appeal to Pili was the geography near Salt Lake City, which reminded her of the mountains around Anchorage, where she grew up.
Her compact, solid frame could be said to reflect those same mountains – if those mountains had grace, fluidity, and quickness. Her strength inside is well-known in the Pac-12. How many mobile basketball stars are powerful enough to earn state high school championships in shot put (four of them) and discus (two)?
But despite her strength and size, Pili is not stuck in the paint. She is a true three-level scorer, with versatility. While unmovable and agile on the block, she can also drive to the hoop with a surprising first step. She only rarely shoots the three, but has hit 27 of her 59 attempts (.459). She also leads her team with 27 steals on the season.
Sophomore Gianna Kneepkens takes more than half of her shots from beyond the arc, and does so at a .416 clip, second in the conference. Last season’s Pac-12 freshman of the year is also holds Minnesota’s high school record for season scoring average (41.6 ppg). She has scored in double figures in 23 games this season, and is second on the team with 15.3 points per contest.
Her career-high 28 points on 5-9 threes was the offensive difference in the title-clinching win over the Cardinal, but she did not do it all from outside. Her drives got her to the free throw line six times, yielding nine points.
A big guard at 5-11, Kneepkens averages five rebounds per game, and grabbed 13 against Washington State in February. She is a pure scorer, and shoots over 50 percent on the season.
These two may be the most prominent Utes, but this is a team that shares nearly everything. Roberts trusts every member of her deep roster, and nearly all of them have had starring roles in one or more of Utah’s 25 victories.
Sophomore Kennady McQueen’s teammates admire her unflagging energy.
“She makes all of us better each day,” Kneepkens said. “Kennady uses her athleticism super well to get boards and just scrap on defense. You can watch her and take pointers from her.”
“She just plays so hard and, you know, you can’t coach that,” she said. “And that’s a luxury I have with this team. I don’t have to coach effort ever. We’ve had dips in intensity, but not effort. And Kennady, I think, is the leader in that category.”
Nothing in the stat sheet calls out “Dasia Young.” But she has been a defensive stalwart in key games all year, coming off the bench to limit the opponent’s best player.
“I just love that kid,” Roberts said. “She’s kind of our Swiss-army-knife player, who will do whatever is needed.”
The 5-11 junior approached her coach in the third quarter of the Stanford game and said, “I want to *** guard Brink,” the 6-4 Cardinal center.
“The coach in me was like, ‘ah?’” Roberts said. “But then I thought, ‘you know what? If you have a kid that has that burn in her gut to do that, like let’s do it. And she was phenomenal. She gave up six inches, but gave her fits. And that kind of encompasses Dasia. I think she’s our X Factor.”
Despite giving up those five inches, Young made it hard for one of the nation’s best centers to get the ball. Brink was just 3-9 from the field, and Young was not responsible for any of Brink’s eight free throws.
The architect for all this success is, of course, Roberts. She has coached the Utes to winning seasons in six of her eight years at the helm. She has crafted this year’s deep team into the best, by far, in program history. She has done so by convincing her players to “trust the process,” without worrying about every tiny mess-up. Her players credit her with allowing them to “play free.”
“It’s a read and react sport,” Roberts explained. “The reason they feel free is because when we practice our plays are not ‘this play is for Option A and Option A only.’ This play might give us “A,” but it might also let you do something else that you see. So that’s one side, there’s freedom for them to make plays.”
Roberts is not hung up on perfection.
“The other side is, after games we don’t give them a box score of ‘you went six for nine.’ Let’s say in the game you went zero-for-nine but they were all nine great shots. It’s gonna say nine-for-nine. So they don’t worry about missing as long as they’re taking great shots. They’re not afraid of making mistakes,” she said.
Pili said she and her teammates appreciate the grace that the coaching staff extends.
“Coach is big on that, not worrying about these little things,” Pili said. “We’re just more focused on how we’re getting better and what we can do to get better.”
Pili has welcomed the personal touch of Roberts, as well.
“She really values the relationship part of knowing her players and kind of just giving us what we need to succeed,” Pili said in a recent interview. “And I think she just does such a great job with that for each and every one of us.”
After last season’s success, Roberts said “It’s time for us to pivot to being great.” That pivot has clearly happened, and Utah is poised to challenge seriously for a national championship. Were they to win the Pac-12 tournament, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament would be a given. But even a deep run could well see the Utes on that one-line.
Utah kicks off Pac-12 Tournament play tonight at 6 p.m., when they face Washington State in the quarterfinals.