BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) First-year coach Kenny Brooks is as surprised as anyone at how quickly the Hokies have embraced his team-building efforts.
And the results have been pretty impressive.
The Hokies started the year with 15 consecutive victories, and their record after four league games is their best since joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004.
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The No. 17 Hokies (16-1, 3-1 ACC) will try to add another big win to their resume at No. 15 Duke (15-3, 3-2) on Thursday night.
”When I walked in here last April, I had no idea what to expect,” said Brooks, the longtime James Madison coach. ”Even when we started practices, I never would have thought in a million years we would have been this far along so quickly. But I’m excited; they deserve it. They’ve been very receptive to everything I’ve asked them to do.”
Brooks, who replaced Dennis Wolfe, has transformed the Hokies’ fortunes with players that were already part of the program. He starts three seniors – Samantha Hill, Vanessa Panousis and Sidney Cook – and sophomores Chanette Hicks and Regan Magarity. Each of them averages more than 30 minutes per game.
The biggest change, his players say, is in the way Brooks and his staff have instilled a sense of togetherness in the team, and promoted confidence.
”The first couple of weeks, it wasn’t even really about basketball, even though that’s what we’re all here for,” Hill said. ”It was just, `You want to get into the mindset of we’re a team.’ Everything we do, we’re doing together and if you’re going to do something, you’re going to do it to the best of your ability.”
Results on the court, especially when Virginia Tech has been challenged, have only reinforced the message.
The Hokies were already 5-0 when they hosted perennial power Tennessee. Virginia Tech led by as many as 13 and won, 67-63.
They were 10-0 when they played at Auburn, led by as many as 11 but let the Tigers rallied to tie the game, forcing overtime. The Hokies rebounded, winning 92-87.
”Everything kind of goes back to the being together part,” Hill said.
It helps that the Hokies have plenty of talent, led by Hicks, a whirling dervish point guard who leads in scoring (17.2), assists (93) and steals (73).
”He allows me to do my thing,” said Hicks, who is on pace to shatter the ACC record for steals in a season (91) that she set last year. ”Even though I mess up, I don’t have to look over my shoulder every time. He even tells me every game, the first two turnovers are on me so just let it go.”
Cook (13.9 ppg 9.4 rpg) and Magarity (13.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg) have nearly identical numbers, Hill averages 10.9 points and Panousis averages 9.6 points.
Hill drew Brooks’ ire early in the season when she passed up an open shot, then did it again moments later, causing him to pull her from the game.
Her time on the sidelines lasted only long enough for the coach to tell her she needs to shoot the ball, and when she went back in, she made a 3-pointer on the next trip down the floor.
”If you tell Sami Hill that she’s good, she starts to believe it and she starts to play like that,” Brooks said.
Virginia Tech’s unbeaten run ended in an 82-75 loss at No. 14 Miami, but they rebounded by beating Wake Forest 72-70 on Sunday.
Now they’re looking for another confidence builder at Duke: The Hokies would like nothing better than to snap their 22-game losing streak against the Blue Devils.