March 7, 2023
Why isn’t Ashley Owusu playing for Virginia Tech?
The former Drysdale Award winner says she's healthy, but she didn't play a single minute in the ACC Tournament
GREENSBORO, N.C. – It is not exactly shocking that Virginia Tech won the ACC Tournament this season. Under Kenny Brooks, the Hokies ended the regular season on an eight-game winning streak and saw Elizabeth Kitley win her second straight ACC Player of the Year award. And now, the Hokies have 10 Quad-1 wins, tied for the most in the nation. What is surprising about the Hokies’ path to claiming their first-ever conference crown is that they pulled it off with one of their prized offseason additions, Ashley Owusu, being a total non-factor.
Last spring, after suffering a first-round upset loss in the NCAA Tournament to 12th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast, Virginia Tech retooled its roster a bit. It had to replace Aisha Sheppard, who was drafted by the Las Vegas Aces, and it needed to add another reliable playmaker outside of Kitley and point guard Georgia Amoore.
Virginia Tech brought in Taylor Soule, a versatile forward and multi-All-ACC selection at Boston College, and Owusu.
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While Soule is a talented player, the transfer that made more heads turn toward Blacksburg, Va. was Owusu, who – at the time – was considered one of the game’s most talented guards and a legitimate WNBA prospect. At Maryland, Owusu won the Big Ten Tournament MVP twice, was named All-Big Ten three times, was twice an AP All-American, and – as a sophomore in the 2020-21 season – won the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award as the nation’s top shooting guard. That season, she averaged 17.9 points, 5.9 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game while shooting 49% from the floor.
But Owusu didn’t see a minute of playing time for Virginia Tech in its three ACC Tournament wins in Greensboro. The most she’s played since the start of February was eight minutes at N.C. State on Feb. 6, when she attempted one shot and turned the ball over twice.
After Virginia Tech’s ACC Tournament quarterfinal win over Miami last Friday, a reporter from The Next approached Owusu in the locker room and asked her if she was physically able to play.
“Yes,” Owusu replied. “I’m good to go.”
So, if Owusu isn’t injured, then why isn’t she – a former All-American and Drysdale winner – playing for the Hokies?
The answer seems to be this: An injury cost Owusu valuable time to integrate herself into the Hokies’ system. While she was hurt, Virginia Tech figured out how to play without her, and that form of Virginia Tech seems to the best version of itself, considering that the Hokies have now won 11 straight games and played their way into the conversation for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed. And, rather than try to force Owusu into the lineup and risk disrupting the rest of the team, Brooks seems to be at peace with her not being part of the rotation.
And while Owusu hasn’t been playing, she’s been tweeting – quite a bit. A quick scroll through her Twitter timeline, or likes, displays the feelings of an athlete who is desperate and eager to get back on the court.
“It’s been kind of up and down, especially with the injury and then coming back, and then not really being able to play,” Owusu told The Next. “Just staying confident within myself and just staying ready.”
Owusu didn’t just disappear from the Hokies’ rotation overnight. She came into the season with a lot of hype around her. ESPN tabbed her as the second-best transfer, just behind her former Maryland teammate Angel Reese.
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And Owusu’s teammates raved about her in preseason interviews.
Amoore said this of Owusu at the ACC Tip-Off event in Charlotte in October: “Ashley is incredible. She just does some things and you just have to go, ‘Oooh,’ like, it’s embarrassing for the defense, really. Even guarding her sometimes, I’ll play the best defense I can and she’ll still find a way to score on me. It’s a good thing to have on your team and a bad thing to play against. She’s a really big threat.”
Owusu started Virginia Tech’s first six games of the season, averaging 11.8 points, three rebounds and 1.8 assists per game while shooting 50% from the floor. She scored 16 points in a win over Kentucky and dropped 21 in a win over Longwood.
Then the injury happened. Eight minutes into the Hokies’ Big Ten-ACC Challenge game against Nebraska on Dec. 1, Owusu broke her pinkie. On Dec. 15, Virginia Tech said she would be out indefinitely after having surgery to repair it.
Around that time, Brooks told ESPN, “Unfortunately for us, right before she got hurt, she was starting to figure it out. I thought she was going to get on a roll and then she gets hurt. But her attitude has been tremendous … We can’t wait to get her back.”
About a week later, The Next caught up with Brooks at High Point on Dec. 21 after an 86-66 Hokies win – their fifth in six games without Owusu.
“More and more every day, you see her using her hand and doing some things,” Brooks said. “The great thing is, she’s able to stay in shape. Stay in shape and run. So, hopefully as soon as we get her back, she’ll hit the ground running and be ready to come back. But we need her desperately.”
Owusu did not return to the court until Virginia Tech’s Jan. 19 game at Pitt. In her absence, Kayana Traylor became the starter at the two-guard for the Hokies and played pretty well. In the 10 games Owusu missed, Traylor averaged 11.4 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 47% from the floor.
Do those stats look familiar? They’re not all that dissimilar to what Owusu averaged for the Hokies before her injury. Statistically, Traylor gave Virginia Tech the same production. What’s more, Traylor is a better on-ball defender. In Sunday’s ACC championship game, she often drew the assignment of guarding Louisville’s Hailey Van Lith.
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Owusu’s return was rough. She scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting in 21 minutes at Pitt. Meanwhile, Traylor had 13 points and five assists.
“The rehab process has been a lot longer than I’ve ever had to go through,” Owusu said. “But I feel fine now.”
In her next outing, Owusu had four points on 1-for-6 shooting in 15 minutes against Wake Forest, and then zero points on 0-for-2 shooting in seven minutes in a loss at Duke on Jan. 26. After that defeat – the last the Hokies have suffered this season – Brooks was asked about Owusu’s status by The Next.
“It isn’t fair to ask her to come back into a high-intensity game like this when she’s only had a week of practice,” Brooks said. “She’s got to get her wind, and once she gets her wind, I think she’ll be able to contribute. It’s a little difficult because she plays four games for us and then we have to reinvent ourselves and now all of a sudden, we have to throw her back in the middle of a highly contested ACC race. It’s got to be fair to her, and I think she gets better and better as we go on.”
Owusu saw double-digit minutes for the final time this season in the Hokies’ next game, a win at rival Virginia on Jan. 29. In 19 minutes, she scored four points on 1-for-4 shooting. Virginia Tech won 72-60 behind 25 points from Traylor, sparking its current winning streak.
In the fourth win of that streak, an 84-70 victory at home over Florida State, Owusu did not come off the bench. Again, Brooks was asked about the prized transfer by local reporters.
“The timing of it is just not fair to her. She was out during a critical stage,” Brooks said. “She missed two months that were critical for her development in our system. In those two months, we were developing chemistry. So, when she comes back, it’s just hard because it’s right in the middle of the ACC race. Everything is just trying to get going, and we have some kids that are playing well. My job is to make sure that we’re winning and we’re trying to get her in as much as we can to get her comfortable.
“She’s still trying to learn the system on the fly. I applaud her because she comes to work every day and I know she wants to be a big part of what we’re doing, but it’s just so hard right now because we are in a groove, we are working hard, and she’s still trying to figure out what we’re doing.”
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The critical stage of the season that Brooks speaks of is December and January. In the transfer portal era, that’s where most players seem to tend to find their groove with new teammates.
Take Taylor Soule, for instance. Brooks pointed to a moment where the “lightbulb” went on for her. After the Hokies’ loss at Miami on Jan. 8, the two had a one-on-one meeting.
“I think after Coach and I had the talk, it was definitely really honest just about goals and where I want to be as an individual and where I want to help this team,” Soule said. “So I think offensively just getting to my spots, being more confident, getting workouts in and film with him.”
Soule scored 24 points on 14 shots in a win over Louisville in the game that immediately followed that meeting. She’s averaged 11.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per game since and has been instrumental to Virginia Tech’s success, making the All-ACC Tournament Second Team.
It doesn’t seem like Owusu ever had that moment with Brooks. She told The Next that it’s been “frustrating” at times to not see playing time on the court, like in Virginia Tech’s quarterfinal win over Miami, when the Hokies led by as much as 33 points in the fourth quarter.
And it seems unlikely that she’ll be an on-court contributor to the Hokies in the NCAA Tournament. That means we’ve probably seen the best of Owusu in college basketball.
She told The Next that she doesn’t plan to use her fifth year of eligibility and will instead turn pro.
“I still have goals,” Owusu said after the quarterfinal win over Miami. “I’m just mentally preparing myself and talking to myself and just trying to stay ready … It’s definitely been difficult, but it’s a team sport. I support my teammates and I’m happy that we got a good win.”