Triad natives lead Virginia Tech to its first ACC women's basketball championship in Greensboro
Elizabeth Kitley laughed as she slid her 6-foot-6 frame into a pile of balloons and confetti that covered the Greensboro Coliseum floor.
A native of Summerfield who attended Northwest Guilford High School, Kitley grew up going to the Atlantic Coast Conference women’s basketball tournament. Often during the first weekend in March, year after year, she and Cayla King — teammates in high school and now in college — could be found in the historic venue’s stands, dreaming of the days when they would finally play on this stage.
“We watched Arike Ogunbowale, we watched Notre Dame, we watched Louisville win,” Kitley said. “For it to be us and for Virginia Tech to have champions next to it is incredible, and I'm so happy that we've seen this.”
In front of an announced crowd of 6,802 fans on Sunday, Kitley and King helped Virginia Tech win the ACC’s ultimate crown – and they did it in front of their hometown fans. Kitley had 20 points, and King provided four points, two assists, seven rebounds and stingy defense as the Hokies beat Louisville 75-67 for their first-ever ACC Championship in women’s basketball.
“I’ve always been around it,” King, a native of Greensboro, said of the tournament. “It’s cool. It’s like the circle of life; watching it, playing in it, and now actually winning it. But at the same time, we expected it, because we’ve worked our asses off all year. And we play as a team. It’s really hard to stop us.”
The victory was Virginia Tech’s 11th straight, a program record, and it’s the first time a No. 3 seed won the ACC Tournament since 2012. The win also made Hokies’ coach Kenny Brooks the first Black coach to win an ACC women’s basketball tournament title.
When Monday's AP Top 25 Poll was released, Virginia Tech was ranked fourth, its highest placement ever.
Brooks took the reins of the program in 2016, when it was coming off a season where the Hokies won just five ACC games. This year, Virginia Tech won 14 conference games, the most in a single season in program history.
"I sold them a vision, they went out and they executed it," Brooks said. "We said we would be here, and we never wavered."
Recruiting and then landing King and Kitley — now seniors — was crucial to Virginia Tech’s turnaround. Both players, who led Northwest Guilford High School to a pair of state championships, could’ve stayed in-state and gone to one of North Carolina’s four ACC schools, but they believed in Brooks.
“Kenny Brooks – he’s just an amazing person and coach. It’s a family atmosphere,” King said. “It really feels like home away from home.”
While King didn’t fill up the stat sheet in the ACC Championship, her defense was valuable. Brooks tasked her with guarding Hailey Van Lith, an All-ACC selection for Louisville who averages 19.2 points per game this season. With King guarding her, Van Lith mustered just 12 points on a poor 23% shooting mark.
“She did a phenomenal job on Hailey Van Lith,” Brooks said. “Her length, I think, bothered (Van Lith). Cayla is one of the smarter players that we have.”
While King’s role is often to provide strong defense and timely 3-pointers, Kitley is often the focal point of the offense. She was voted ACC Player of the Year this season for a second straight time after averaging 18.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Her height gives her the ability to connect on shots over defenders, like when she swished a buzzer-beater from mid-range to grab a victory at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carmichael Arena on Feb. 23.
After she hit that game-winning shot, Kitley’s father Ralph — who stands at 6-foot-10 and played basketball at Wake Forest — could be seen in the bleachers, pumping his fists. Moments after the final buzzer sounded in the Hokies’ title game victory over Louisville, Kitley was running over to the seats in the lower bowl in the Greensboro Coliseum, to give celebratory hugs to her mother, father and older sister Raven, who is Autistic.
“I'm just happy to see all the support,” Kitley said. “And it’s not even just my family. A ton of Hokies came out. I just love Virginia Tech… My family has always showed up for me. My aunts flew in, people from high school came. We had a ton of people in maroon and orange, and it felt like a home game at times, and I think that benefitted us and gave us a lot of energy. It's really cool to win the whole thing in front of all your loved ones.”
While Kitley and King are seniors, they can play a fifth-year of college basketball because of the NCAA’s ruling a few years ago. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA didn’t count the 2020-21 season toward the eligibility clock for athletes. Neither King or Kitley have decided if they’ll come back for a fifth season.
If they do return, there’s a chance they could be defending Virginia Tech’s ACC Tournament title in another arena. While the conference’s women’s basketball tournament has been held in Greensboro in 23 of the last 24 years, the News & Observer reported that the ACC’s contract with the Coliseum expires this year. A host site for next season hasn’t been determined yet. The women's tournament was estimated to bring an economic impact of $7.4 million to Greensboro this year. As part of the ACC's $15 million agreement with the North Carolina legislature to keep its headquarters in the state, the conference must hold at least four of its women's basketball tournaments in the state within the next 10 years.
For now, Virginia Tech’s focus is on the NCAA Tournament, where it could land one of tournament’s coveted No. 1 seeds. The bracket will be released on Sunday, March 12.
“We’re not done,” Kitley said. “The way that we're playing right now, I think we're playing just as good as anyone else.”