BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) — With his team on the verge of losing for the first time this season, Louisville coach Jeff Walz decided not to complicate the situation and instead revert to a strategy that has served him well over the past three seasons.
Just get the ball to Dana Evans and let her take care of the rest.
Evans, the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, scored 22 points, including four in the final 1:07, and No. 2 Louisville slipped past Virginia Tech 71-67 on Thursday night.
Evans, who was coming off a career-high 29 points in Tuesday’s win over UT Martin, hit 11 of 22 shots from the floor and made a critical steal in the waning moments for the Cardinals (9-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), who survived their toughest test of the season.
“She made some big-time plays for us,” Walz said of Evans. “There in the last two minutes of the game, my staff was talking to me, and I was like, ‘Guys, don’t worry about it. Nobody else is taking a shot but Dana unless she gets somebody a wide-open shot.’ That’s nothing against the rest of them because they’re all very good players, but Dana has been in these big games before.”
Hailey Van Lith added 15 points, including two free throws with 4.2 seconds left to seal the win for the Cardinals.
Aisha Sheppard paced Virginia Tech (6-3, 1-3) with 20 points. The Hokies rallied from a 16-point first-half deficit to take the lead, but couldn’t hold on and lost their third straight.
Evans’ layup with 1:06 remaining tied the game at 67, and after a Virginia Tech turnover, she hit a short jumper with 23 seconds to go to put Louisville ahead. On the ensuing possession, she stole the ball from Georgia Amoore with 10 seconds left. The Hokies fouled Lith, whose two free throws provided the final margin.
Elizabeth Kitley finished with 17 points for the Hokies, who themselves had played just once since Dec. 17 because of COVID-19 postponements.
“It’s unfortunate because the kids worked hard,” Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks said. “But we’ll get back at it and continue to fight.”
Louisville: After blowing out their first eight opponents by 10 points or more, the young Cardinals — Evans is the lone senior — received a scare Thursday evening. Louisville’s turnovers nearly were its undoing, as the Hokies scored 16 points off 15 turnovers. The Cardinals need to fine-tune a few things, but they have depth and should be in the mix for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Virginia Tech: The Hokies have made strides in Brooks’ five seasons, and eventually they’re going to pull off an upset of one of the ACC’s top teams. They have lost 17 straight combined against Louisville, North Carolina State and Florida State under Brooks, with 12 of those losses by at least 10 points. They had a great chance Thursday, but failed to score in the final 2:26 and had two turnovers in that span.
“Those were the mental errors down the stretch,” Brooks said. “I thought we put ourselves in position. But you have to capitalize in situations like that and we had three mental errors in the last 1:30. You can’t win basketball games of this nature like that.”
WALZ SAYS TO PLAY ON
Louisville paused team activities in early December because of a positive COVID-19 test within the program and has played just twice in the past month. Multiple teams in the ACC continue to be plagued by the virus as well, and Duke has already chosen to end its season, but Walz said Thursday he would not support any type of league-wide or NCAA-mandated two-week pause of basketball because of the pandemic.
“Play games,” he said. “If you’re able to play, play. My kids, they want to play. We’re not going to put them out there in a situation where it’s not safe for them or they’re not healthy, but if you’re able to play, we need to play. What are they going to do? That’s my big thing. What are they going to do? Sit in a dorm room by themselves? The safest place to be is with their teammates in a situation where we’re testing three or four times a week.”
The Cardinals should beat Clemson on Sunday and remain entrenched at No. 2 in the AP Top 25. They have a chance to move to No. 1 if No. 11 Oregon can pull the upset of No. 1 Stanford on Friday.
The Cardinals host Clemson on Sunday.
The Hokies play at Georgia Tech on Sunday.
More AP women’s basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25