By Brian Rapp
RALEIGH – It was just two weeks ago that NC State’s women’s basketball team was on the brink of several historic firsts.
Heading into their Feb. 13 home clash with Louisville, in first place in the ACC (11-1) and a game ahead of Cardinals, the Pack was poised to potentially earn its first regular-season conference title since 1990 and its first No. 1 seed for the ACC Tournament (also since 1990).
Its 22-1 record (the lone loss a 66-60 upset in Chapel Hill by North Carolina on Jan. 9) marked the best 23-game start in program history. And it’s No. 4 national ranking was the highest a Pack team had received since the second week of 2000. There was even speculation that NC State might be aiming at one of the four No.1 seeds for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, which would have been another first for the program.
Flash forward 13 days later, and the picture now confronting Coach Wes Moore’s squad has become inexplicably murky, clouded by a stunning free fall that has cost the Pack three losses in its last four outings, starting with that 66-59 defeat to the then No. 9-ranked Cards.
That’s been followed by home losses to unranked Georgia Tech (65-61 on Feb. 16) and Duke (70-65) Monday in the 15th annual Play4Kay game to benefit cancer research, and a near-loss at Miami Feb. 20, won 50-48 on a last-second shot by Pack freshman Jakia Brown-Turner.
Finish what you started
Heading into Thursday’s regular-season home finale against a Syracuse team that had won five straight before losing at Notre Dame last Sunday, and then traveling to Virginia Sunday for the season closer against Cavaliers, the Pack, 12-4 in ACC play and 23-4 overall, holds a slim one-game hold on second in the conference ahead of third-place Duke (11-5), and two games ahead of Florida State, Virginia Tech and Boston College, all tied for fourth at 10-6.
Win out, and NC State receives the No. 2 seed for the ACC Tournament next week in Greensboro, its highest since 1990’s No. 1. Split, and the Pack could wind up No. 3 if Duke wins out against Virginia Tech and North Carolina. Lose both, and NC State would get no worse than a fourth seed.
But the main focus of concern right now for Moore isn’t the potential seed ramifications of these last two games, but the problems that have led to those ramifications being a concern at all.
Asked following Monday’s loss to the Blue Devils if the Pack’s slide could be corrected in the next five days, Moore replied, “I don’t know – you’d better ask (the players) that.”
Recognize the situation and react accordingly
Late-season setbacks aren’t new for the Pack women – NC State has a losing record in the month of February two of the last four years, and is 3-3 so far for this February. Higher-ranked opponents at the end of the schedule, coupled with the annual wear and tear of ACC play, have been a factor in recent years, as was the Pack’s rash of season-ending knee injuries a year ago, leading to three of the team’s four regular-season losses.
The Play4Kay game, previously known as Hoops4Hope, also has been a particular thorn in the Pack’s side over the years; since Moore arrived in Raleigh in 2013, his teams are 2-5 in that contest, though for most of those seven years NC State faced nationally-ranked ACC opponents in that matchup, including last year’s game against defending national champion Notre Dame.
But Monday’s loss to Duke, a team that hadn’t beaten NC State on its home floor since 2013 and was 0-3 in three previous meetings with the Pack, was enough to bring out a very uncharacteristic personal critique from the Pack coach.
“I told the players I’ll take the blame on a lot of things, but at some point they have to be accountable,” he said. “We have to do a better job preparing for games, knowing the scout, going out and executing, playing with some energy and some urgency.”
Moore noted his team wasn’t playing with the level of competition he wanted in its losses to Louisville and Georgia Tech, games in which the Pack either fell behind early (trailing 19-8 after one quarter against the Cardinals) or allowing a huge scoring explosion by Tech, which outscored NC State 26-15 in the third period of its win in Raleigh on Feb. 16.
“A lot has to do with urgency,” Moore said. “Right now, everything’s turned up a notch, and we haven’t matched it. We’re not hungry enough, we’re not tough enough. When you step between the lines, at some point you have to get down and dirty – you have to compete. And I don’t feel like we’re doing that well enough.”
Cracks appear in the foundation
Moore noted NC State’s recent shooting slump – the Pack shot just 32 percent (21 of 65) from the floor against Louisville and 34.5 percent (19 of 55) at Miami (the ‘Canes 29-percent accuracy was a saving factor in the two-point win) as one reason for the slide, but not the only one.
He cited poor execution on picks, not helping on defense and a downturn in NC State’s conference-leading rebounding edge (Miami was the only game in the last four in which the Pack had a decisive edge on the boards, 45-33) as all contributing to the setbacks.
Against Louisville, NC State actually outscore the Cards 51-47 over the final three periods, but were never able to overcome that first quarter gulf, due in large part to a combined 8-for-29 shooting effort from Ace Konig, Kai Crutchfield, Brown-Turner and backup guard Grace Hunter, and a dominating performance by Cards post Kylee Shook, who held Pack sophomore post and leading scorer Elissa Cunane to her worst shooting night of the season (1-for-12) and blocked seven shots.
Cunane recovered to tie with junior forward Kayla Jones for scoring honors against the Yellow Jackets (each with 17), but a career-high 30-point effort from Tech senior Francesca Pan, coupled with another cold night from the NC State perimeter (Konig, Crutchfield, Brown-Turner and Hunter combined to take just 12 shots, making five) and a lackluster defensive effort that allowed Tech to hit 47-percent (26 of 55) of its shots led to that L.
Miami, 13-12 going into the game in Coral Gables (where NC State hadn’t won since 2007) and playing without its best player, senior forward Beatrice Mompremier, led the Pack by as many as nine points in the fourth quarter before a furious comeback, capped by Brown-Turner’s baseline jumper with two seconds left, enabled the Pack to escape with the two-point win.
Leadership and accountability
Monday’s loss to Duke, a team riding a hot streak (nine wins in 11 games) after sitting 7-8 overall, 1-4 in ACC play as of Jan. 9, showcased two teams heading in seemingly opposite directions. Missed shots and defensive lapses the first five minutes gave the Devils a 7-0 lead they never relinquished, and despite an improved shooting night by the Pack (they hit 24 of 52 attempts, 46.2 percent, to Duke’s 27 of 59, 45.8 percent), a 16-8 deficit in turnovers led to 23 Duke points, while the Devils’ eight miscues produced just two points for the Pack.
“Duke’s got three seniors in their starting lineup that realize it’s now or never,” Moore pointed out, “and we’ve got some freshmen and younger players. But the thing is, the breakdowns early in the game, that was our veterans. So where are they? They’ve got to be accountable – step up and get it done.”
The coach also acknowledged that he’s had to look at several rotation changes these past few games, something he’s decidedly not in favor of.
“We’re searching, which is not a good time of the year to be doing that,” he said. “This isn’t the time to be rotating the lineup, trying to define roles, but I feel like we’re kinda in that boat.”
The Pack’s starting five has remained a constant through all 27 games so far, but Moore has been inserting freshman forward Jada Boyd earlier and earlier in games (Boyd’s scored in double figures four of the last five games, including 15 against Duke for second-high scorer behind Cunane) and opting for freshman Camille Hobby to fill in for Cunane in the post instead of senior Erika Cassell, who has not played in the last two games. Cassell, Hunter and graduate guard Kaila Ealey have all had their minutes reduced this year after recovering from knee injuries suffered last season.
“These last couple of games have just hit us in the mouth,” Cunane remarked following Monday’s loss. “We’re not playing the defense we’re capable of, we’re not knocking down shots on offense, not getting the looks we’re capable of, so it’s been tough.
“It’s concerning, but at the same time, we know who we are, and we’re going to bounce back. Can we turn it around? I think so – one of our problems has been energy, but we had more tonight, so I think we’re almost rebuilding as every game gets tougher this late in the season. I think we’re going to take care of business this week, finish these last two regular season games out and be ready for the tournament.”
Moore, in his closing comments Monday, seemed to imply that the flaws in NC State’s game the past two weeks aren’t new – that some deficiencies have existed all along that lesser opponents just haven’t been able to take advantage of.
“I’ve got to do a better job,” the Pack coach acknowledged. “But I can’t play for them. At some point, they’ve got to compete. We wait until the fourth quarter before turning it on – that’s too late. We’ve got to start playing 40 minutes.
“Players have to transfer what we work on in practice into a game, and go out and execute what we’ve worked on. And if things aren’t going well, the only thing I know to do is keep working, and work harder, and try to figure it out.”
There’s still a lot riding on these next 10 days on whether the Pack can “figure things out,” including a No. 2 ACC Tournament seed, maintaining a top-10 national ranking (the Pack was ranked No. 8 before the Duke loss) and earning a coveted host selection for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. And success in these upcoming challenges will, hopefully, erase the sting of knowing what opportunity has been lost.
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