BLACKSBURG — Virginia Tech’s graduate transfers grabbed the spotlight Thursday night.
Taja Cole scored a game-high 21 points and Lydia Rivers grabbed a game-high 13 rebounds to help the Hokies beat Pittsburgh 68-56 at Cassell Coliseum.
“They’ve really steadied us a lot [this season]. Taja was terrific tonight,” Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks said. “Lydia … was tremendous tonight.
“We knew they were going to be impactful for us immediately, and that’s why you want to bring in a grad transfer.”
Cole, a point guard who transferred from Georgia, had her most prolific outing since joining the Hokies.
She entered the game averaging 7.9 points on the season but erupted for nine points in the first quarter Thursday, when she was 4 of 4 from the field.
“In the beginning, we [weren’t] hitting shots that we normally do, so I just tried to be aggressive and get the game going with my intensity on offense and defense,” Cole said.
Cole helped Virginia Tech (12-3, 2-2 ACC) build a 22-12 lead at the end of the first quarter. Tech led the rest of the way.
“She’s just fast and athletic in transition,” Pitt coach Lance White said. “You can’t replace experience. She has it and we don’t.”
It was only the fifth time this season that Cole scored in double figures.
The 21 points were one shy of Cole’s career high; she scored 22 for Georgia last season at UCLA.
“She carried us,” Brooks said.
Cole had been making more of a mark at Tech with her passing than with her scoring. She entered the game leading the ACC in assists with an average of 6.4 per game. She dished out a game-high six assists Thursday.
“I’m learning my teammates, … learning where they like the ball, knowing their sweet spots on the court,” Cole said.
“She knows how to create for us and get us in comfortable positions to get our shots off,” teammate Aisha Sheppard said.
Rivers, a former All-Big South forward at Radford, also joined Tech as a graduate transfer last summer.
She snared double figures in rebounds Thursday for the fourth time this season.
“That’s one of the things that I was brought here to do,” Rivers said of her rebounding. “I’m just trying to be the best that I can be rebounding, and then making the little plays.”
She scored eight points Thursday.
Rivers, who has been starting for Tech since early December, has also helped her new team with her defense inside.
“I don’t think Lydia anticipated the role that she has,” Brooks said. “She offers that grit to us where it’s desperately needed. We lost, with [ex-Hokie Regan] Magarity, somebody who was like the quarterback back there and really anchored the defense.
“[Rivers] stepped into that role. That’s kind of why we inserted her into the starting lineup.”
Sheppard had 16 points and five 3-pointers Thursday, including 10 points and three 3-pointers in the second quarter.
The junior guard has drained a total of 17 3-pointers in the past three games, including a school-record-tying eight in a loss at North Carolina State on Jan. 2.
“I owe it to Taja. She makes sure that i can get to my spots,” Sheppard said. “She really draws the defense so that they have to play her, and then she kicks it at the right time for me to get my shot off.”
Virginia Tech was 9 of 37 from 3-point range, tying the school record for the most 3-point attempts in a game (set last season against Longwood).
Pitt (3-12, 0-4) lost its eighth straight game.
The Panthers turned the ball over 17 times and shot just 39% from the field.
“Cole really pressured our point guards and made them speed up a little,” White said.
The Hokies led 38-25 at halftime.
“They were rougher than we were the first half,” White said. “Their post game was rougher and there was lots of fouls.”
Pitt cut the lead to 44-39 with 4:12 left in the third quarter. Pittsburgh shot 56.3% from the field in the third quarter to Tech’s 28.6%.
“We lost focus,” Brooks said of that quarter. “We were very stagnant on the offensive end.”
Up 53-45 after three quarters, Virginia Tech scored the first five points of the fourth quarter. Cole made a jumper and Dara Mabrey sank a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 58-45.
It was Tech’s second straight ACC win after an 0-2 start to league play.
“It’s really good for our kids, our program, to be able to get a couple wins in a row,” Brooks said.
PITTSBURGH (3-12, 0-4)
Judkins 2-4 0-0 4, Knight 0-2 0-0 0, Bugg 4-10 0-0 10, Brown 4-9 2-4 10, Green 3-9 0-0 9, Harris 4-10 1-1 9, Hayford 3-6 1-2 8, Lamark 1-2 0-2 2, Igbokwe 2-6 0-0 4, Prapa 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-59 4-9 56.
VIRGINIA TECH (12-3, 2-2)
Rivers 3-6 2-2 8, Kitley 1-3 3-4 5, Sheppard 5-16 1-1 16, Mabrey 2-12 0-0 6, Cole 9-12 3-3 21, Baptiste 3-13 2-2 9, King 0-2 0-0 0, Geiman 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 24-66 11-12 68.
Pittsburgh 12 13 20 11 — 56
Virginia Tech 22 16 15 15 — 68
Three-pointers—Pitt 6-15 (Bugg 2-4, Brown 0-1, Green 3-6, Hayford 1-3, Prapa 0-1), VT 9-37 (Rivers 0-2, Sheppard 5-15, Mabrey 2-11, Cole 0-1, Baptiste 1-4, King 0-2, Geiman 1-2). Rebounds—Pitt 42 (Brown 9, Igbokwe 9), VT 35 (Rivers 13). Fouls—Pitt 12, VT 10. Assists—Pitt 9 (Brown 3), VT 9 (Cole 6). Turnovers—Pitt 17, VT 9. Officials—Creech, Cissoko-Stephens, Sparrock. A—1,332.