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No. 16 Virginia Tech surging again to top of ACC behind inside-out duo of Kitley and Amoore

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Elizabeth Kitley headed to the Virginia Tech sideline to call it a night with 7.8 seconds left, sporting a huge smile as she shared high-fives with teammates. Georgia Amoore followed, motioning her fingers to ask nearby Hokies fans to bring more noise.

Then, after completing a line of high-fives with teammates, Amoore did it again as she took her seat.

There's some familiar confidence and swagger with the 16th-ranked Hokies these days, led by the veteran duo who helped secure program firsts last year with an Atlantic Coast Conference championship as well as a trip to the Final Four. Now, after sweeping third-ranked North Carolina State, they have the Hokies surging to lead a crowded top tier of the ACC standings.

“Last year was last year, this is a new team,” Amoore said after Thursday night's 72-61 road win. “But I mean, it's getting towards (late) February, early March, so I think this is a perfect time to hit that peak and continue on it.”

Virginia Tech (19-4, 10-2) sits slightly ahead of No. 15 Louisville for the ACC lead in a league with five teams having at least eight ACC wins. The preseason ACC favorite enters a stretch run that includes stops at Louisville (Feb. 18) and No. 12 Notre Dame (Feb. 29).

They’ve won six straight games, five coming by double-digit margins and three coming on the road against ranked foes entering Sunday’s trip to Boston College.

The returning veterans from last year's Final Four run — the 6-foot-6 Kitley as a two-time ACC player of the year, Amoore at the point and Cayla King on the wing — have provided the foundation, though it has taken time for the roles and rotations to be defined with nine newcomers.

Virginia Tech's only nonconference losses came against No. 2 Iowa and superstar Caitlin Clark, and against 13th-ranked reigning national champion LSU. And they've been hovering between 11th and 19th in the poll since early December, almost as an afterthought among potential top-tier teams.

Coach Kenny Brooks said Thursday there were “some unfair expectations” for a team that had to incorporate new faces. Then again, Kitley and Amoore are a tandem capable of winning games seemingly by themselves.

Kitley has a soft touch either in the paint or stepping out of the lane for a jumper, while Amoore needs little daylight to launch with a quick off-dribble release and range easily extending past the arc.

That was on display against the Wolfpack, starting with Kitley's latest big output (25 points, 13 rebounds) in a season that has her ranked inside the top 10 nationally in scoring (ninth at 22.2) and rebounding (seventh at 11.6). Amoore (17.5 points) came within two rebounds of a triple-double and knocked down a 3-pointer just before the horn to cap a game-deciding third-quarter performance by Virginia Tech.

“They both got frustrated after the Final Four, they were so eager to try to get out there and continue to improve,” Brooks said. “I told them: 'At this stage, you’re not going to make leaps and bounds, you guys are so good that it’s going to be incrementally better."

It helps, too, that the Hokies have settled on clear supporting roles within their rotation. On Thursday, that meant Michigan State transfer Matilda Ekh joining King in hitting four 3-pointers, while freshman center Clara Strack had eight rebounds and two blocks.

“They're bringing things that they weren't necessarily bringing in November,” Kitley said. "But that just shows their willingness to learn and stick with it."

True, but everything will start — as it did all last year — with Kitley and Amoore in another push toward the postseason.

“I think we're going to be hard to guard," Brooks said. "When you put these two in a pick-and-roll situation, I like to say they're like Stockton and Malone — but they don't know who that is.”

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AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball