March 22, 2024 

Virginia Tech hits a crossroads as NCAA Tournament begins

Is this the end of an era for the Hokies?

On the eve of the program’s fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance, Virginia Tech’s women’s basketball team seems to be approaching a crossroads.

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The Hokies and their fans have been experiencing and enjoying never-before-seen success in the sport in Blacksburg, Virginia. Last season, Virginia Tech won the ACC Tournament for the first time ever, and then – powered by Elizabeth Kitley and Georgia Amoore – the Hokies went to their first Final Four.

This season, the team coached by Kenny Brooks won the ACC’s regular season title for the first time, and Kitley became just the third player in the history of the conference to win its Player of the Year award for a third time.

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If this era is indeed coming to an end, it will be punctuated by at least three banners, and at least one – perhaps two – jerseys being hung in Cassell Coliseum, an 8,925-seat venue that Virginia Tech sold out for women’s basketball five times this season. Before this year, that had never occurred.

Virginia Tech slammed its brakes at this metaphorical crossroads on Thursday morning when two things happened.

First, Brooks confirmed in his press conference ahead of the No. 4 Hokies’ Round-of-64 matchup with No. 13 Marshall that Kitley had taken the floor for the final time in her maroon and orange Virginia Tech uniform. The 6’6 center last played in the Hokies’ regular-season finale – a loss to rival Virginia in Charlottesville that broke the record for the highest-attended women’s basketball game in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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On that day, Kitley exited the game in the third quarter after landing awkwardly on her left leg following a transition layup, falling against the stanchion. The fifth-year star shook her head when a teammate tried to help her up. Her father was distraught in the stands, turning to slap the back of a chair in frustration. Brooks rushed to the floor, crouched down and held his star player’s face. It seemed like in that moment, they all feared the worst. Two-and-a-half weeks later, Brooks verified those worries.

“She tore her ACL,” Brooks said.

He added: “Obviously, emotionally, it’s probably been one of the most trying couple weeks of my life, for the kids as well, just because of what she means to us … She’s been emotional. I’ve been emotional. I think we text each other probably 30 times a day. She will be good and then she will be sad. The kid has put everything into this and she’s the reason we are here. She’s the reason we are here. If it weren’t for her and the way that she plays we would probably be somewhere else at a different venue instead of being able to host, instead of being able to say that we’re the ACC regular season champions. So, the kid ate, slept, drank basketball.”

Virginia Tech forward Elizabeth Kitley warms up before playing against Iowa in Charlotte, N.C. on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

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It’s impossible to overstate what Kitley has meant to Virginia Tech’s rise as a women’s basketball brand, not just in the ACC but across the sport. When the Summerfield, North Carolina native — who wasn’t recruited by UNC or Duke — committed to Brooks and the Hokies, the axis of power in the ACC titled toward Virginia just a bit. She will leave Virginia Tech as the school’s all-time leading scorer in men’s or women’s basketball and is the ACC’s all-time leading rebounder. She also set the ACC record for double-doubles.

This season, she was the only player in the sport to average at least 22 points and 11 rebounds per game. It is fair to assume that no other Virginia Tech women’s basketball player will wear her No. 33 ever again, as she has been the centerpiece for the most successful era of the sport at the school.

Kitley wrote on Instagram on Thursday morning: “This is not at all how I anticipated ending this year with my team, but I’m so proud of all of our accomplishments, and I’m excited to see my girls continue to compete. Thank you to all of Hokie Nation for being so supportive during this tough time. I’m looking forward to making a strong comeback.”

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But the crossroads that Virginia Tech finds itself in isn’t just about Kitley. If she was the catalyst for the transformation the Hokies have undergone over the past few seasons, then Brooks has been the chemist, the architect. Consider that, before Brooks’ arrival from James Madison in 2016, the Hokies had never posted a winning record in ACC play. Since Kitley’s debut, they’ve gone 60-28 in the ACC over the past five seasons.

Brooks’ future in Blacksburg is in question because he has emerged as Kentucky’s top target to fill its opening for its women’s basketball coach, The Next reported Thursday.

The Wildcats fired Kyra Elzy after four seasons on March 11. Kentucky — which recently invested $82 million into renovating Memorial Coliseum, it’s women’s basketball venue — is prepared to pay top-dollar for its next coach, sources told The Next. Brooks, after agreeing to a contract extension following the Hokies’ Final Four run last season, is making $925,000 in total pay this season. That figure makes him the fourth highest-paid coach in the ACC – among public school data obtained by USA Today – but it would be just the seventh-highest salary in the SEC.

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On Thursday, Brooks addressed a question regarding a report from Kentucky Sports Radio’s Matt Jones that he had already interviewed for the Kentucky job.

“Right now, there is a lot of speculation and talking and whatever. Obviously, if you have success people are interested, but again, my focus is what we’re doing right now, how we’re doing it,” Brooks said. “My kids are the most important thing to me. I have not heard … but right now I’m about to go to practice and we’re going to go out here and Marshall is the only thing on my mind other than the Hokies.”

Virginia Tech fans crowd behind the set of ESPN’s College GameDay before the Hokies faced North Carolina on Feb. 25, 2024, in Blacksburg, Virginia’s Cassell Coliseum. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Should Brooks decide to leave the valley region of Virginia along I-81 – where the 55-year-old has literally spent his entire life – sources told The Next that former Hokies’ assistant coach Shawn Poppie would be at the top of the list of potential candidates to succeed him. Poppie spent six seasons under Brooks in Blacksburg and has since guided Chattanooga to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.

Kitley’s collegiate career is over, tragically ended by an untimely injury. Brooks’ future in Blacksburg is in question, clouded by the potential riches of the SEC. And Amoore keeps getting projected by experts as a top-10 pick in the upcoming WNBA Draft.

The firecracker Australian point guard – who ranked fifth in the nation in assists this season with 6.9 per game – could return for a fifth season, but many believe she’s already pro-ready. Like Kitley, Amoore has made her mark on Virginia Tech in a big way. She is the owner of the program’s only triple-double, its assist-record, and an ACC Tournament MVP. Amoore was also the Most Outstanding Player at the Seattle 3 Regional last season.

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Which is all to say, this NCAA Tournament run — however long it lasts — could be the last time fans see Kitley, Brooks and Amoore all wearing the same uniform.

“I think at the end of the day, it’s just keeping the main thing the main thing, and that for us is just basketball. Obviously, there’s a lot of attention, a lot of pressure and expectations, but I think as long as we keep our focus on our focus, it’s easier to deal with it that way,” Amoore said. “So, it’s no negative vibes over here, it’s – we’re excited, if anything.”

Over the past handful of years, the trio of Brooks, Kitley and Amoore helped create an atmosphere in Blacksburg that eventually lured ESPN’s College GameDay there on Feb. 25 — the first time the show had visited an ACC venue for women’s basketball. As tipoff neared for the Hokies’ matchup with North Carolina, a chorus of nearly 9,000 Hokies were singing Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” at the top of their lungs. It was one of those organic and chilling moments that makes folks fall in love with college sports. And it’s one that the trio forged together.

Sustaining that awesome culture without any of the three of them could prove to be difficult.

Written by Mitchell Northam

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