BLACKSBURG — Last year, the Virginia Tech women’s basketball team was unable to record its first ACC win until Jan. 31.

The Hokies did not wait that long this year.

Virginia Tech fended off North Carolina 76-70 on Sunday to improve to 1-2 in ACC play.

“It definitely feels good — confidence-builder,” said junior guard Aisha Sheppard, who had 16 points and four 3-pointers.

The Hokies lost their first seven ACC games last year and finished 6-10 in league play. They had to settle for the WNIT for the fourth straight year.

“I was telling my teammates in the locker room, … ‘Enjoy the win because now we can build off of it,’ ” said junior forward Trinity Baptiste, who had 16 points and nine rebounds off the bench. “Because when you lose, it’s kind of like a snowball effect.”

So when Virginia Tech (11-3 overall) opened ACC play this season with two losses, coach Kenny Brooks could not help but flash back to last year.

“I’m not going to sit here and lie. It is a thought you have when you start off 0-2,” Brooks said. “You’re a bit worried how that’s going to affect your kids’ psyche.”

Tech’s 0-2 ACC start was the result of two road games against top-10 teams — an 86-62 loss on Dec. 29 at Florida State and a 76-69 loss Thursday at unbeaten North Carolina State.

“It was a lot of people’s first time playing in the ACC … so they had to get a feel for it,” Sheppard said.

“We went up against two really great teams, so all we can do is just learn from it,” Baptiste said. “We weren’t worried.”

Sheppard said the Hokies believe in themselves more than they did last year.

“We know that the league is wide-open and that we can make a run at this thing,” she said.

Sheppard averaged just 7.4 points last year, when Tech was led by the senior duo of Taylor Emery and Regan Magarity.

“It’s all about waiting your turn,” Sheppard said.

With Emery and Magarity now playing overseas, Sheppard has emerged as Tech’s top weapon this year. She entered the game as the fourth-leading scorer in the ACC with an average of 17.4 points.

“I have gotten a lot better,” Sheppard said. “Watching Taylor and some of the things that she did, I’ve tried to mimic that a little, … her footwork coming off of ball screens or how quick she got her shot off.”

Shayla Bennett scored 26 points for the Tar Heels (11-3, 2-1).

But UNC shot just 38.8% from the field.

“That [Tech] team is really athletic. They play together,” UNC first-year coach Courtney Banghart said. “They played with great urgency.”

UNC center Janelle Bailey scored seven points, less than half her season average. She was just 2 of 6 from the field.

“I … know how she wants to play, where she wants the ball, … so every time she tried to post up, I pull the chair from underneath her — just move my feet, because I’m more agile,” Baptiste said.

Leading 36-32 at halftime, Tech opened the third quarter on an 11-2 run to build a 47-34 cushion. Sheppard had two of Tech’s three 3-pointers in the run.

Down 54-38 with 4:13 left in the third, UNC went on an 18-5 run to cut the lead to 59-56 with 7:38 left in the fourth.

“We just weren’t getting back in transition,” Sheppard said.

But Tech answered with eight straight points.

Dara Mabrey sank a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 62-56.

Taja Cole (nine points, nine assists) stole the ball, made a layup and was fouled. She made the free throw for a 65-56 lead.

Lydia Rivers (11 points) scored to extend the lead to 67-56 with 5:38 to go.

The Tar Heels later cut the lead to 73-67, but Mabrey sank two free throws for a 75-67 lead with 26.8 seconds left.

Mabrey, who suffered an ankle injury at N.C. State, scored 15 points Sunday. Eight of those points came in the fourth quarter.

“What she lacks in height or athleticism, she makes up for in heart,” Brooks said. “She’s one of the toughest kids I’ve ever been around.”

NORTH CAROLINA (11-3, 2-1)

Tshitenge 6-7 0-0 12, Bailey 2-6 3-4 7, Koenen 6-18 2-3 15, Muhammad 3-13 4-5 10, Bennett 9-19 4-7 26, Tucker 0-1 0-0 0, Church 0-3 0-0 0, Duckett 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-67 13-19 70.

VIRGINIA TECH (11-3, 1-2)

Rivers 5-8 1-2 11, Kitley 2-5 2-2 6, Sheppard 6-11 0-0 16, Mabrey 4-10 5-6 15, Cole 2-9 5-7 9, Baptiste 7-15 1-2 16, Geiman 1-1 0-0 3, King 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 27-61 14-19 76.

North Carolina: 17 15 17 21 — 70

Virginia Tech: 17 19 22 18 — 76

Three-pointers— UNC 5-23 (Koenen 1-3, Muhammad 0-7, Bennett 4-9, Tucker 0-1, Church 0-3); VT 8-22 (Sheppard 4-8, Mabrey 2-8, Cole 0-1, Baptiste 1-2, Geiman 1-1, King 0-2). Rebounds— UNC 43 (Bailey 9), VT 35 (Baptiste 9). Fouls— UNC 18, VT 15. Fouled out— UNC (Muhammad). Assists— UNC 15 (Koenen 6), VT 12 (Cole 9). Turnovers— UNC 11, VT 10. Officials— Forsberg, Smith, Esho. A— 1,939.

Mark Berman covers Virginia Tech men’s basketball and many other teams at the university. He also helps cover other colleges, including Radford, VMI, Roanoke, Washington and Lee and Ferrum.

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