By R.L. Bynum
Anytime you face Virginia Tech, your two main concerns are the Hokies’ prolific 3-point shooting and the inside threat from 6-5 center Elizabeth Kitley.
Tech hurt UNC on both counts with 12 3-pointers and Kitley scoring 27 points in Tech’s 73–69 victory Sunday in snowy Blacksburg, Va., for a second win over the Tar Heels.
But Tech, which was coming off an upset of No. 2 N.C. State, put the game away at the free-throw line, going 14 of 16 in the fourth quarter after not getting its first attempt until 24 seconds remained in the third quarter.
The Tar Heels pulled within two on a Petra Holešínská drive with three seconds left. But Georgia Amoore’s two free throws with two seconds left sealed the win for the Hokies (9–7, 4–7 ACC).
“It was a fun game to watch,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “You know, a lot of people throwing punches kind of both directions.”
UNC (8–7, 3–7), which has lost five of its last six games, fell to Virginia Tech for the fourth consecutive time and six of the last seven. The Hokies won at Chapel Hill 66–54 on Jan. 14, and the teams will meet again in Blacksburg on Feb. 28.
Holešínská made many big buckets to keep UNC within striking distance with 21 points and Janelle Bailey added 14, but both fouled out in the fourth quarter. Stephanie Watts added 11 and Deja Kelly 10 as the Tar Heels lost for the first time this season in the nine games when four players scored in double figures.
There were plenty of fouls on both sides that left players and coaches on both teams shaking their heads. On that subject, Banghart chose her words carefully.
“I don’t know what the deal is,” she said. “It’s certainly not worth me getting fined. It was a tricky game. It was a very tricky game, and there were some inconsistencies that were hard to sort of wrap our heads around.”
The frustration for Bailey is that while she was piling up off-the-ball fouls trying to defend Kitley, the Hokies center was only called for one foul.
“My fouls came from different stuff, so that is definitely hard. When I look back and see, OK, I fouled off the ball. Wasn’t even on the ball,” said Bailey, who also fouled out of Thursday’s loss at Louisville. “So, yeah, I’m a physical player. I’m not going to stop being physical. I just have to be cognizant of picking and choosing my battles, I guess.”
It was Holešínská’s third consecutive game with more than 20 points and her fourth of the season. She had half of the Tar Heels’ six 3-pointers, with Watts making two.
“Petra is proven to be a shot-maker,” said Banghart, who says her team lacks the player who can create offense on her own, “or the guy who can get us into stuff. So, based on how we’re built right now, we have to move the ball to create openings and that you get the other defense on the move. And when the ball sticks, the possession isn’t good. They’re getting much better at that but they’re not good enough at it yet.”
Although Kitley got her points, Bailey said that the Tar Heels defended Kitley the way they wanted to for the most part and forced her to take shots she doesn’t normally take.
“That was something that we talked about after the first game, pushing her out and making it difficult,” Bailey said. “I felt like for the most part, we made it difficult.”
Carolina’s biggest problem as the team tries to get better, according to Banghart, is that Holešínská and Bailey are her only players who seemed to be always locked in, knowing what they’re supposed to do.
“Petra has been huge,” Banghart said. “She’s got a competitiveness to her, and she’s locked in. She pays attention. She’s mentally engaged for the whole game. You expect effort at this level across the board but she doesn’t have these mental lapses where she forgets to communicate or forgets how we’re defending certain things. Janelle’s a lot like that as well. Those are probably the only two that are always completely locked into what we’re doing.”
The inexperience showed with bad turnovers in the third quarter, when the Hokies’ shooting went cold and UNC could have taken control of the game.
“Everybody tried to do a little bit too much on your own,” Banghart said. “So, instead of catching and shooting, they would try to catch it and put it down on the floor, which would be a travel. And then, other times, they would try to over-penetrate.
“You don’t have the guy that you can say, ‘let’s put the ball in their hands,’ ” Banghart said. “You’re just really leaning on an inexperienced group in a lot of ways, on the road against a good team. You have to live through inexperience to get better and that’s what we’re doing.”
Banghart played a seven-player rotation in the game that included four freshmen.
“College basketball players have to continue to invest in taking practices seriously so that they can get better and earn more trust,” Banghart said, hinting why others aren’t getting playing time.
Aisha Sheppard scored 16 points and made five of Tech’s 3-pointers before fouling out late in the game.
The Hokies scored the first nine points of the game before UNC’s Alyssa Ustby made an inside bucket 4:09 into the game. The Heels cut their deficit to 17–15 by the end of the first quarter.
Carolina took the lead for the first time when Watts hit a 3-pointer, then turned a steal into a free throw with 8:26 left in the first half to take a 19–17 edge. A Holešínská’s 3-pointer with 5:23 left ended an 8–0 Tech run.
With the help of three Kelly jumpers, UNC only trailed Tech 34–32 at halftime.
Bailey quickly scored inside to tie the game early in the second half, and a Watts 3-pointer gave the Heels a 37–34 edge a minute into the third quarter. After King tied it with a 3-pointer, the teams traded 8–0 runs before Bailey went out after picking up her third foul.
Kitley made Tech’s first two free-throw attempts of the game with 34 seconds left in the third quarter to tie it at 49. But UNC took a 52–49 lead into the final quarter on a Holešínská 3-pointer with 12 seconds left after the Hokies made only five of 19 third-quarter shots.
The Hokies scored the first eight points of the fourth quarter before a Holešínská jumper cut their lead to 57–54. Bailey picked up her fourth foul with 6:24 left, leading to a pair of Kitley free throws to put Tech up 60–54 before Holešínská responded with another 3.
The Tar Heels return home Thursday night at 6 p.m. (ACC Network Extra) to face Florida State (5–4, 4–4). It will be the Seminoles’ first game since losing 73–59 at Wake Forest last Thursday. UNC has lost five consecutive games to Florida State, with the last win (71–63) coming on Feb. 12, 2015.
Virginia Tech 73, North Carolina 69
ACC pool photos