BLACKSBURG, Va. (WFXR) — The last time Virginia Tech was in the second round of the NCAA tournament was in 2021 when the Hokies fell to No. 2 seed Baylor.
Head coach Kenny Brooks remembers that day pretty well, especially the postgame handshake with then-Bears head coach Kim Mulkey.
“Kim came up to me, and we had masks on, and she says, ‘I know you are smiling behind that mask because your team is going to be damn good,'” Brooks said. “And she says they are just babies right now. She was right.”
On the eve of the second round, Brooks reflected on the growth of the program since that Round of 32 loss in San Antonio as the top-seeded Hokies get set to host South Dakota State with a Sweet 16 berth on the line.
“It rang really clear. You know, we were not ready for that moment, but we needed that experience to get ready for that moment. And it prepared us. It prepared us for the next year even though we bowed out early. We understand what we needed to do to get to this point and beyond,” Brooks said. “So we have grown. We have grown. The kids are more experienced. But as opposed to hoping to win, they expect to win.”
The Hokies shook off the rust of a 12-day layoff in their opening-round win over Chattanooga, a game that saw star forward Taylor Soule leave early due to cramping in her left leg.
Soule assured fans that she’ll be ready to go Sunday against the Jackrabbits.
“Honestly, the Hokies and everyone in the program does a great job of making sure we’re hydrated but sometimes you’re playing hard and you can’t always get the fluids you need so all good, got some IV bags yesterday,” Soule said.
Virginia Tech will be the first No. 1 seed that South Dakota State has ever faced in the tournament. The Jackrabbits are coming off an overtime win over Southern California in the first round.
“Obviously it was was tough game. We had to really work for it,” Jackrabbits senior forward Myah Selland said. “That’s what these kinds of games are like in the tournament so I think we can just build confidence off of making plays that we needed to down the stretch and just staying together and trusting each other, I think we can really build off of that.”
While the Hokies are riding a 12-game winning streak, South Dakota State hasn’t lost since December 15 when it fell to South Carolina. Tech will try to end a 22-game win streak on Sunday.
“They’re just really physical and they play really really hard so we definitely have to be ready for that and match their physicality on offense and defense because they’re definitely going to come out punching,” Hokies senior center Elizabeth Kitley said.
Both teams plan to embrace the sold-out crowd that’s expected at Cassell Coliseum on Sunday night.
“We’re just excited to play in an atmosphere like that and it’s fun to see women’s basketball supported like that,” Selland said. “So just to be in that atmosphere will be fun and I think we’re just going to look at it more as it’s great to be part of that opportunity than maybe they’re rooting against us.”
The winner will advance to the regional semifinals in Seattle. The Hokies have yet to make the Sweet 16 since Brooks took over the program in 2016.
Win or lose, Sunday will be the final game the Hokies will play at Cassell Coliseum this season. Tech has only lost once at home during this historic campaign.
“We’ve had close games and we’ve been able to pull them out because of the atmosphere,” Hokies junior guard Georgia Amoore said. “It’s intimidating for other teams to come here and play because the way Cassell is built, everyone just breathes down your neck.”