COLLEGE PARK, Md. – After yet another basket by Elizabeth Kitley, Florida Gulf Coast coach Karl Smesko had finally seen enough. He made a defensive adjustment.
“At the beginning of the fourth quarter they kept going into her, and I kept yelling at the other end what to do, and I’m sure they didn’t hear me,” Smesko said. “And I’m thinking, boy, this game is going to be tight at the end. I hate to waste a timeout. But I don’t think it would have been wasting a timeout. By the time we were able to get together, make the adjustment, we were able to force a couple turnovers on the post entry.”
FGCU never really stopped Kitley, but the 12th-seeded Eagles slowed her down enough toward the end to oust fifth-seeded Virginia Tech 84-81 on Friday in the women's NCAA Tournament. The 6-foot-6 Kitley scored a career-high 42 points. FGCU still advanced.
Kitley scored Virginia Tech's first 14 points of the fourth quarter. She finished the period with 18. Her 42 points tied her for seventh on the tournament’s single-game scoring list.
“She’s phenomenal,” teammate Aisha Sheppard said. “I think coach would agree with me, we knew she was coming. She’s phenomenal in every aspect of the word. And she works so hard at this, so I’m sad for her for the outcome.”
Toward the end of the fourth quarter, however, FGCU (30-2) double teamed Kitley more effectively. It was seemingly the only option left for the Eagles, who have nobody taller than 6-foot-1 on their roster.
“Obviously I had a pretty large size advantage,” Kitley said. “I knew that coming in. Did a lot of stuff to take advantage of that."
Kierstan Bell scored inside with just over a minute remaining to put FGCU up 76-74. After a miss by Kitley, Karli Seay made a 3 from the left corner to put the Eagles up by five with 26 seconds left. FGCU made enough free throws to hold on.
“I knew in that corner I have to be ready if she got it to me,” Seay said. “I shot it just like we do every day in practice.”
Bell scored 22 points for FGCU, which was ranked in the AP Top 25 this week but received a double-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles showed exactly how dangerous they can be, overcoming a huge matchup problem against Kitley, a third-team All-American.
FGCU leads the nation in 3-point attempts by a wide margin, so this game was quite a contrast in styles. The Eagles went 15 of 38 from beyond the arc while Kitley dominated inside.
FGCU took 15 of its 18 shots from 3-point range in the first quarter.
“Part of that was probably my fault, because I told them, ‘Hey, we’re going to be shooting a lot of 3s today, and we're going to need to shoot a good percentage,” Smesko said. “But we didn't have to shoot every one.”
The Eagles did a better job attacking the rim after that, but their performance beyond the arc was crucial all the way until the end.
Virginia Tech (23-10) did a good job on Kendall Spray, who is fourth on the career list in made 3-pointers. She had only one in this game, a banked heave with the shot clock running low that put FGCU up by eight late in the third.
FGCU: The Eagles sounded confident coming into this game, and they made the most of their chance to show they were underseeded. A Sweet 16 appearance is certainly possible.
Virginia Tech: Kitley should hold her head high after a fabulous performance. If FGCU was seeded too low, then the Hokies were a victim of that by having to face the Eagles so early.
PICK YOUR POISON
Spray came into the game shooting 45% from 3-point range, and Tishara Morehouse was at 34%. Morehouse didn't make any in this game.
Bell, who has the second-most 3-pointers on the team this season behind Spray, went 2 of 8 from long distance.
The problem for Virginia Tech was that Seay made four, and Kerstie Phills and Emma List made three apiece.
“It is hard to guard everyone. We did a really good job on the main two 3-point shooters,” Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks said. “Karl probably can say the same thing. I think their game plan was to take away our 3 and let Liz do her thing, and then she did it. Our game plan was to make the others hit shots and they did.”
FGCU plays Sunday against the winner of the game between fourth-seeded Maryland and 13th-seeded Delaware.
Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister
More AP coverage of March Madness: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25