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February 12, 2009

Though not visible in the win column, women's hoops team making progress

By: Matt Kovatch

Junior Utahya Drye continued her breakout season when she tallied career highs of 30 points, 16 rebounds and seven steals on Feb. 2 against USC Upstate.

As the Virginia Tech women’s basketball team stumbled its way through an overtime win against USC Upstate on Feb. 2, there were audible grumbles in the crowd, some of which can’t be repeated in this family magazine. There was some rolling of the eyes, and some fans even headed for the exits before the game was finished.

And that’s not to say any of that was unwarranted – the Hokies shouldn’t have any trouble taking care of the Spartans, a team playing in just its second year at the Division-I level. And that this came just one day after Tech sputtered through one of its worst halves of the season (Tech lost to N.C. State after leading at halftime) makes the Hokie loyalists’ frustration understandable.
But before losing faith in Beth Dunkenberger’s squad and calling it a season, think about how relatively well this team has done considering what it’s had to deal with.

Not more than a week or two after this publication released its optimistic basketball preview issue, things began to fall apart for the Hokies. Supremely talented sophomore Andrea Barbour was dismissed from the team, and it was determined that senior A.J. Lemaitre likely wouldn’t play because of her slowly healing, surgically-repaired knee. Then Brittany Cook, the ACC’s leading scorer from a year ago, blew out her anterior cruciate ligament during a preseason practice and was lost for the season. Since then, senior post player Amber Hall has been reduced to the bench, having not played since Dec. 20 due to her chronically problematic back. And all of that doesn’t even include the loss of 6-foot-4 center Eleanor Brentnall, who decided not to return to school before the season even began.

There are a lot of reasons to throw in the towel, but to Dunkenberger and her players’ credit, not once have they used any of those personnel losses as an excuse for a single defeat this season. That’s why those two ugly games against N.C. State and USC Upstate need to be taken with a grain of salt. We’ve all had bad days or weeks at work – maybe that’s all it was for the Hokies.

Besides, even with all of those players who are unavailable this season, the 2007-08 Hokies won only two conference games. And after an impressive, 65-61 road win over Clemson on Jan. 28, this year’s squad was already halfway to that figure with eight league contests to play.

Something is different about this team. Though it’s not showing up in the win column, for the most part, this team has played harder than last year’s team. There hasn’t been as many blowouts, and this team, aside from that N.C. State game, doesn’t disappear for entire halves at a time like it did last year.

The Hokies lost by just four points on Jan. 8 to a Florida State team that sat atop the ACC heading into the month of February. They kept the loss at Boston College on Jan. 11 to single digits despite going up against arguably the best post duo in the league, and then trailed by only three with under a minute to play against No. 4 Duke on Jan. 16. Tech put up 79 points, 16 more than its per-game average, in a loss to No. 12 Maryland on Jan. 18, before taking No. 16 Virginia to the wire on Jan. 21. If there was a ‘moral victory’ column in the standings, the Hokies might very well be in first place.

Maybe the loss of all of those aforementioned players has caused the current players to band together a little tighter. Juniors Utahya Drye and Lindsay Biggs have stepped it up in a big way, and as of Jan. 6, ranked ninth and 16th in the conference in scoring, respectively. Freshman Shanel Harrison has done an admirable job as her playing time has increased, and sophomore Brittany Gordon has learned on the fly as she’s grown into the center position. Even sophomore transfer Nikki Davis has been a much-welcomed, change-of-pace addition.

Are those players where they need to be yet? No, but they’re certainly making the progress needed to turn things around in 2009-10. Though no coach wants to condone moral victories, Dunkenberger has got to see the light at the end of the tunnel with her best recruiting class on the way and Cook still having a good chance of obtaining a medical waiver for a sixth year of eligibility.

Here’s hoping the Hokie faithful see that light at the end of the tunnel as well because it seems to be on its way.

Hokies extremely generous to Yow fund

On a side note, Virginia Tech played host to N.C. State on February 1, just eight days after the Wolfpack’s legendary head coach, Kay Yow, succumbed to a decades-long battle with cancer.

Before the game, on behalf of Virginia Tech and the Hokie Hardwood Club, Dunkenberger presented N.C. State interim head coach Stephanie Glance with a check of $26,190 to be donated to the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund.

The Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund is a charitable organization committed to being a part of finding an answer in the fight against women’s cancers through raising money for scientific research, assisting the underserved and unifying people for a common cause.