Virginia Tech Women 65, St. Joseph's 56
Friday, January 22, 1999

USA Today box score and game recap
Sights and Sounds - pictures from the game

The Pre-Game

I was a little late getting out of the house for this one (babies will do that to you), and as I approached Blacksburg with time winding down before tip-off, I could tell that this game was going to be different.

Rick Watson had already said on the game broadcast on 101.7 FM that the atmosphere was "electric," and the stands were filling up all around him. And indeed, as I came in off of 460, the traffic into the parking lots was heavy.

The atmosphere around Cassell harkened back to the men's games in the 1980's. Police had been called in to direct traffic, Washington Street was full with a steady stream of cars, and fans packed the sidewalks and the Hokie Brick Trail in front of Cassell.

I didn't mess around. I dove into the first parking lot I came to, got out of the car, and started running. I wanted to see the tip off, I knew the ticket lines were long, and I passed dozens of people, perhaps hundreds, on my way in.

I won't bore you with the other details of getting in, but I did indeed manage to get into my seat, high in the rafters of Cassell, just one minute into the game.


The Game

First of all, let me say that St. Joseph's was impressive. As one message board poster said, they are the best team Tech has played this year. They had several great players, similar to GW, and a lot of height, but in addition to that, they played great team defense and ran an effective, precision offense. Make no mistake about it, this St. Joe's team, which has recorded eighteen straight winning seasons, is good.

Tech struggled mightily with the St. Joe's half-court zone, which packed the middle, confused the Hokies, and bogged down the Tech offense. On many occasions, when Tech was able to get the ball down inside, the Hokies had trouble finishing their shots. Nicole Jones and Michelle Houseright in particular missed many shots under the basket.

The Hawks were tall, they were scrappy, and they were well-drilled. Tech hung with them throughout the first half, and then put up seven straight points, including a buzzer-beating three pointer, to take a 31-28 half time lead.

St. Joe's was in a funk as the second half opened, but unfortunately, so were the Hokies. Tech, who prides themselves on coming out of the locker room strong to start the second half, only scored 4 points in the first eleven minutes of the second stanza. Tech managed to take a 35-30 lead, but the Hawks put up a 9-0 run and went up 39-35.

At this point, I was sweating. Bonnie Henrickson had made the correct second half adjustments, and the Hokies were getting good open looks at the basket, it's just that they were stone cold.

Into the void stepped Katie O'Conner. Katie-O would score 16 second half points and earn player of the game honors, and without her, I'm not sure the Hokies could have pulled it off. She started nailing shots when no one else on the team could, and she provided a much-needed offensive spark.

But the biggest shot may have come from Lisa Witherspoon. After going down 41-37, the Hokies battled back and tied it at 41. The Tech crowd started getting into it, and St. Joe's turned the ball over. At the opposite end of the court, Tech's diminutive and talented point guard unexpectedly hoisted a deep three that swished through the hoop and electrified the crowd. It would be one of only three shots the Spoon would take all night, and it was the only one she made. That, my friends, is timing.

After that, St. Joe's fought valiantly for a little while, but they were done. O'Conner continued to hit shots, the Hokies made some key steals, and the crowd made life rough for St. Joe's. At one point in the second half, Tech was down 41-37, but they strung together a 19-6 run that put them up 56-47 and iced the game. The Hawks started fouling, and the final score ended up at 65-56, Tech.


Post-Game Notes

As I said on the message board, I know the crowd made a difference in this one. Women's teams aren't used to playing in front of this many fans, and they're certainly not used to playing in an environment as loud and as rowdy as Cassell. When the crowd - and the Hokies - cranked it up in the last five minutes, St. Joe's didn't have much of a chance.

O'Conner's efforts were critical to the win. Nicole Jones struggled, although she did have one nice sequence in the second half where she pulled down three straight offensive boards until she closed the deal with a hoop. Tere Williams was her usual self, but few other players contributed a lot. Except for one great sequence late in the first half, Michelle Houseright was almost a non-factor.

But the biggest surprise was the play of Amy Wetzel. Amy, who usually comes up big in big games, struggled mightily on the offensive end. She would eventually shoot 2 for 10, and she forced difficult shots all night long against a St. Joe's zone that she never quite figured out. She did play well defensively and from the free throw line, though.

This Tech women's team reminds me of the NIT champion men's team of a few years back. Namely, they can beat you with any one of about four or five players. On a night when super soph Wetzel and fabulous freshman Jones weren't putting forth their best games, Katie O'Conner stepped into the void and carried the team to victory.

As I've said many times, most women's teams only have one or two players capable of carrying a team to victory, and the depth that Bonnie Henrickson has is a luxury. It may have meant the difference between victory and defeat in this game.

With the huge crowd and the tough win, this game was a watershed event in Tech women's basketball. Many of the fans in attendance were going to their first women's game ever, and it's a safe bet that they'll return again later. And as the undefeated string, now at 17 and counting, continues to build, so will the excitement. And the crowds.

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