Historic Season Cut Short - What's Next?
Virginia Tech women’s basketball coach Kenny Brooks was sitting in his living room when news of the NCAA Tournament’s cancellation came across the screen.
“It was heartbreaking,” Brooks said Friday morning on a teleconference. “I’ve never had a group that sacrificed as much as this group did for the betterment of the team. To have that taken away from us – for them to not hear their name – for me, I’ve done it. … Obviously, I have years left and opportunities for it to happen again, but to watch Taja Cole, Lydia Rivers and Kendyl [Brooks] not be able to achieve that anymore, it was just heartbreak.”
At 4:15 p.m. on Thursday, March 12, the NCAA announced that the remaining winter and spring championships would be canceled due to the threat from COVID-19. The statement ended Virginia Tech’s NCAA Tournament hopes, a competition they were slated to participate in for the first time in 14 years.
The Hokies, who finished with a 21-9 overall record and a school record 11 ACC wins, were an eight or nine seed in most bracketology predictions.
Though the fifth seeded Hokies were bounced in their first game of the ACC Tournament against No. 13 Wake Forest, 55-58, they were psyched about their chance to dance in March. After the loss to the Demon Deacons on March 5, Brooks said he thought the Hokies were a tournament team.
They didn’t get their chance.
“They worked towards a goal and really achieved it, with everything other than getting the grade back,” Brooks said. “You went in, aced the test, knew you did a good job and the teacher probably graded it but just never gave it back to you. It was a very hard pill for me to swallow because the kids work so hard.”
It was known that Tech would be without Cole, Rivers and Kendyl Brooks after this season. The trio provided solid leadership for a young Hokies roster, something that Kenny Brooks often spoke highly about.
Dara Mabrey announcing her decision to enter the transfer portal on March 16 was not as expected, at least for Tech fans.
Her announcement came just a few hours after men’s basketball player Landers Nolley announced his intention to transfer, and most thought it more surprising than Nolley’s.
The sophomore from Belmar, New Jersey started all 64 games in her career in Blacksburg, running the point as a freshman. Mabrey found herself in more of a shooting guard role in her second season due to the addition of Cole, which Brooks speculated was the reasoning behind the decision.
“I knew she was unhappy with her role, being taken off of the ball,” Brooks said. “I knew Dara had the desire to be a point guard. We went out and recruited another point guard, Georgia Amoore, and Georgia got to practice with us all second semester. I can just speculate and assume that Dara just felt like she wasn’t going to get her opportunity to play point guard and had that desire to play point guard, so she figured she needed to do it somewhere else, because it couldn’t be playing time, it couldn’t be shot attempts. She had all of those things.”
Brooks said that there was no conversation with Mabrey about her decision, just that she sent him a text.
Mabrey averaged 11.5 points, 2.3 assists and 2.1 rebounds per game in her two seasons in Blacksburg. She also hit 155 three-pointers and set a record for most threes in a season with 80 in 18-19.
She ranks seventh all-time in three-pointers made in program history and was named to the All-ACC Freshman Team in 2019.
So, what lies ahead for this group?
Brooks, for one, believes the Hokies are in good hands.
“We’re fine, we really are,” Brooks said. “It’s no discredit to her [Mabrey], it’s just credit to our program and where we feel like we are. We feel like we’re going to be extremely gifted next year, probably even better than we were this year.”
Brooks showed his excitement for the new additions of Amoore and Asiah Jones, the 6’3” forward that transferred to Blacksburg from the University of Southern California.
“Georgia Amoore is probably my ideal type of point guard,” Brooks said. “She’s fast, she can shoot it, she can defend, she can do a lot of different things. We also have Asiah Jones, who was sitting out this year, who is probably the most athletic player I’ve ever had as a head coach. She’s going to be able to step in and give us some athleticism down low. We have a tremendous group of freshmen that are going to be able to plug in.”
Brooks also praised the talent of his incoming recruiting class, which is made up of three four-star recruits:
Neveah Dean, a 6’2” forward from Hamilton, Ohio
Shamarla King, a 6’0” guard from Hartford, Connecticut
Shelby Calhoun, a 5’11” guard from Louisville, Kentucky
“The kids we’re bringing in – Shelby Calhoun was the runner-up for Mrs. Kentucky, which is a hotbed for women’s basketball,” Brooks said. “Shamarla King is probably one of the best recruits we’ve brought in since I’ve been here. I equate her to a bigger Aisha Sheppard. She shoots the ball at a high clip but she’s six-foot tall. Nevaeh Dean is going to offer us some depth and size to a post area that I think is pretty solid, and that’s not to say what happens in the transfer portal.”
Brooks mentioned the portal quite a bit, noting that his assistants had been “combing the portal” over the last few days.
“If you look at the portal today, there are some very surprising names in there that will shock you,” Brooks said. “I’ve been on the phone with numerous kids, just trying to find and see if someone’s going to be a good fit. I’m very excited, I’m focusing on what we have.”
Tech’s roster for next season will include four seniors, five sophomores and four freshmen.
The upperclassmen of Alex Obouh Fegue, Asiah Jones and Trinity Baptiste, the ACC’s Sixth Player of the Year, will provide Brooks & Co. some much needed frontcourt depth. Combine that with Elizabeth Kitley, who will both be a sophomore next season, and Tech has an abundance of talent.
As for the backcourt, senior guard Aisha Sheppard will lead the way, sliding into more of a shooting guard role in the upcoming season. The First Team All-ACC Selection had the ball in her hands more after the departure of Taylor Emery, and she’ll be the go-to player again next year.
“To really step over into the role that Taylor Emery vacated, I thought she did a really good job of learning,” Brooks said. “This year was like a trial year. She probably exceeded my expectations, so now we can be more forward thinking with what we can do for her senior year.”
Sheppard, the Alexandria, Virginia native, committed to Brooks and the Hokies in August of 2016. She broke the three-point record this season that Mabrey set last year, knocking down 84 triples through 30 games.
The former five-star recruit and USA Today High School All-American had to wait for her turn to shine, though.
As a freshman, Sheppard averaged 8.3 points per game and started ten of Tech’s 37 games, including the last nine in a row. Despite hitting 76 three-pointers, she sat behind Taylor Emery for most of the season.
More of the same happened in Sheppard’s sophomore year, as she sat behind Emery for most of the season. She started eleven of the last twelve games, however, and her numbers increased.
When Emery graduated, Sheppard stepped into the role.
She didn’t disappoint.
“I’m very proud of her,” Brooks said. “She went through two years of sitting behind someone, waiting in the wings, which is kind of unique this day in age. Most kids want to come out, step in and play right away and she was very patient. … She had to mature as a person, and I think all of that is paying dividends for her right now because she’s ready for the situation. I think she’ll shine next year.”
Sheppard started every game for Brooks’ squad this season and averaged 14.8 points per game, ranking ninth in the ACC. She even set a career high 32 points in Tech’s loss to Virginia on February 23, knocking down eight threes.
Next season will also be the first time that Sheppard will be the veteran in Tech’s backcourt. After sitting behind Emery and playing alongside Cole, it’s now her time to lead the program and mentor the youth – of which they have plenty.
She’ll play alongside sophomores Cayla King, Taylor Geiman and Makayla Ennis, while having the ability to mentor the talented freshman.
Remember when I asked what’s next for this team? Well, Brooks put it plainly.
“We just feel like we’re very, very strong,” Brooks said. “I’m excited about what we can be because we can be even stronger next year.”
Photo Credit: Liam Sment