DALLAS — As the final seconds ticked off the clock in Friday’s women’s Final Four opener, Virginia Tech Coach Kenny Brooks turned around and clapped in acknowledgment of the thousands of appreciative Hokies supporters sitting in two sections behind the bench at American Airlines Center.
“I’m the proudest coach in the country regardless if we didn’t get the actual prize,” said Brooks, who’s in his seventh season at Virginia Tech and 21st overall as a head coach. “The fact that [the players] love me as much as they do, it’s all that matters. It’s all that matters. I’ve been doing this too long, and this is the absolute best I’ve ever felt with a group.”
In the immediate aftermath of the stinging result that ended a 15-game winning streak, Brooks and players referenced myriad breakdowns, particularly in the fourth quarter, that led to an early departure in Virginia Tech’s first appearance in the national semifinals.
The Hokies (31-5), for instance, were outscored 29-13 over the final 10 minutes. They also finished at a 54-14 deficit on points in the paint, mainly because dynamic LSU guard Alexis Morris (game-high 27 points) routinely was able to drive deep into the lane while teammate Angel Reese (24 points, 12 rebounds) thrived in that space, too.
Thus the Tigers secured the first appearance in the national championship game in program history. They will face No. 2 seed Iowa on Sunday afternoon.
“If you know me, I’m never satisfied,” Morris said. “I’m super excited that we won, but I’m hungry. Like, I’m greedy. I want to win it all so I can complete the story and complete the comeback.”
Wayward three-point shooting doomed Virginia Tech as well. It went just 9 for 31 from behind the arc, including missing the first seven attempts of the game, and committed 18 turnovers. The Tigers (33-2) parlayed those miscues into a 22-10 advantage in points off turnovers.
But the postgame conversation soon turned to the contributions of players such as senior center Elizabeth Kitley, the Hokies’ career scoring leader, and junior guard Georgia Amoore, who set the NCAA tournament record for three-pointers made.
Kitley finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds, seven blocks and three assists in her final game with Virginia Tech. The 6-foot-6 all-American recorded the 57th double-double of her career, extending her program record, and played all 40 minutes against LSU.
“This is my favorite team I’ve been on by far,” said Kitley, forecast to be among the top picks in the WNBA draft. “The goal is a national championship, but a Final Four is pretty incredible, and I’m going to remember it as that. But also just mainly this group of girls has been so fun to play with, and it’s the kind of relationship I feel is going to carry on for however many years.”
Trailing by nine points at the conclusion of the third quarter, the Tigers blitzed Virginia Tech on both ends of the court and took the lead for good at 64-62 with 5:44 to play on Flau’jae Johnson’s steal and layup in the middle of a decisive 22-3 flurry.
The only points for the Hokies in that overwhelming stretch came on Amore’s three-pointer. Otherwise Virginia Tech committed one mistake after another, including Kayana Traylor (17 points, nine rebounds) stepping on the baseline for yet another turnover.
A 20-2 barrage bridging the halves delivered Virginia Tech a 43-34 lead with 8:04 left in the third quarter. Kitley scored eight points during that time, and a pair of three-pointers from Amoore and Cayla King expanded the Hokies’ margin to 51-39 with 5:40 to go in the third quarter before LSU rallied.
“They just started playing more aggressive,” Amoore said. “Obviously we knew they were going to come out with that aggression with us being up, and I just don’t think we were good enough to stop Morris coming down and playing with that confidence.”
The Tigers were making their first appearance in the Final Four since 2008, which was the last of five straight trips to the national semifinals. Their recent revival began with the hiring of Coach Kim Mulkey two years ago after she won three national championships at Baylor.
One of Mulkey’s most impactful moves was landing Reese from the transfer portal. The native of Baltimore began her college basketball career at Maryland, but an injury derailed her freshman season. She averaged 17.8 points as a sophomore, her last season in College Park.
As one of the top post players in the country, Reese instantly transformed LSU into a contender. The 6-3 forward logged a 33rd double-double against the Hokies, expanding her SEC single-season record, and outplayed Kitley down the stretch.
Among the more intriguing matchups heading into the first postseason meeting between Virginia Tech and LSU was Reese facing Kitley, the two-time reigning ACC player of the year who has been a foundational piece during the Hokies’ rise.
Reese went to work early, scoring four of the Tigers’ first 10 points. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, was unable to get Kitley the ball in the post consistently in the first quarter, although she drew the Hokies within 16-13 thanks to an offensive rebound and putback.
Turnovers also plagued Virginia Tech in the first half, but an 11-0 charge to close the second quarter put the Hokies in front 34-32 at halftime. Kitley got the comeback started with another stick-back, and Traylor followed with a steal leading to a fast-break layup and a three-pointer.
Kitley got a fadeaway jumper to fall moments later, and Traylor’s floater completed the scoring in the first half after the Tigers had threatened to separate for good, taking a 32-23 lead with 4:48 remaining in the first half courtesy of a 10-2 surge.
“I just don’t even know how to feel right now,” Reese said. “Just to be able to believe in each other — all we have is each other. We believe in each other more than anybody else, so I’m just happy. I’m excited. I’m full of emotions right now.”