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FGCU overcomes Elizabeth Kitley’s first-round scoring record in 12-5 matchup

Early contender for game of the tournament.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 30 Women’s - Duke at Virginia Tech Photo by Brian Bishop/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the bracket was revealed on Selection Sunday, one matchup that immediately seemed too good for the first round was No. 5 Virginia Tech vs. No. 12 Florida Gulf Coast.

The 5/12 matchup often lends itself to upsets, but this game felt like a mistake from the committee: The Hokies came into the tournament as the 16th-best team in Division I, per Her Hoop Stats, and the Eagles were 21st. On a neutral site, like the NCAA Tournament, Florida Gulf Coast would have a 43.5 percent win probability, way too much when seven seeds separated the two teams.

As it turned out, the projections were right. FGCU and Virginia Tech delivered a masterpiece on the first day of the Round of 64, with the Eagles emerging as 84-81 victors — just look at that game flow.

Although both teams played at a high level, the individual star of the day was Elizabeth Kitley, the first ACC player of the year in Hokies program history. The Virginia Tech center scored 42 points in the opening-round game, the highest in the first round since Elena Delle Donne’s 38 in 2012 and the most in any tournament game since Kelsey Mitchell with 45 in 2016.

Kitley’s efficiency was off the charts, as she hit 16-of-27 field goal attempts. Once she had a foot in the paint, the Eagles were powerless to stop her. She calmly faced up and posted up, finishing around the hoop with either hand, even extending her range to some deeper jumpers. She picked her scoring up as the game went along, dropping 18 points in the fourth quarter as the Hokies attempted to rally from a seven-point third-quarter deficit and even briefly took a two-point lead.

But while Kitley and the Hokies made a living on 2-pointers, Florida Gulf Coast had success spreading the floor. The Eagles hit 15 3-pointers, with five players knocking down at least two. FGCU got into the teeth of the defense and kicked out for perimeter shots — 14 of their 15 threes were assisted, six of them by senior point guard Tishara Morehouse.

That outside attack combined with a strong performance from Kierstan Bell, mostly in the paint. Bell, who plans to enter the WNBA draft after this season, had some foul trouble early as she picked up her fourth foul before the end of the third quarter. Head coach Karl Smesko got Bell back into the game with eight minutes left anyway, and his best player responded with nine points, two steals, and the game-sealing assist in the final period.

Out of a timeout, Bell drew three defenders in the post and found the open player, Karli Seay, in the corner. Seay drained her fourth triple of the game to put the Eagles up five with 27 seconds to play, securing the victory.

In a game with 17 lead changes (the final one coming on a Bell 3-pointer with 4:51 to play), FGCU ensured there would not be another, confirming its place in the second round Sunday against the winner of Maryland vs. Delaware. It was a remarkable performance from both teams, and despite the seeding, not an upset.