By Peter Koutroumpis
RALEIGH, N.C. – The fourth-seeded and host N.C. State Wolfpack worked hard to post a 62-35 first-round win over the 13th-seeded Elon Phoenix in front of a boisterous crowd of 2,669 in attendance at Reynolds Coliseum on Friday.
Kiara Leslie and Aislinn Konig posted double-digit finishes scoring 13 points and 12 points, respectively, as the Wolfpack’s shooting percentage almost doubled that of the Phoenix.
Shay Burnett’s 12 points, which included three 3-pointers, led an Elon offense that struggled to find space and drop shots trying to keep up with N.C. State.
Chelsea Nelson’s game-high 12 rebounds helped fend off an aggressive and physical offensive attack from the Phoenix throughout the game.
Numerous no-calls and scrambles for loose balls highlighted play, particularly during the first half.
“We knew it would be a physical game coming here,” Burnett said.
“We played N.C. State in December, and we talked about being ready for the physicality they were going to bring, I think they brought it from start to finish.”
The Wolfpack struggled at times to take advantage of its athletic ability to transition from defense to offense with no fast breaks, but producing hard-earned points in the paint (22) and off second-chance opportunities (9).
“I just think we were off a little bit,” Nelson said.
“We were taking pretty good shots that weren’t just falling for us. We were trying to get as much transition play as we could. When we were in transition, we’d go on a four-out, and we started playing better together and things started falling for us, leading to second-chance shots.”
With the win, N.C. State moved on to play in the Tournament’s second round on Sunday to face the fifth-seeded Maryland Terrapins, 77-57 winners over Princeton earlier in the day.
N.C. State led 27-17 led by eight-point outputs from Leslie and Akela Maize, and seven points from Konig.
Burnett’s seven points and six rebounds provided ample pushback to slow the Wolfpack offense during the second quarter.
The Wolfpack doubled Elon’s shooting pace, hitting 62 percent from the field during the third period and stretched out its lead to 17 points, never looking back from there.
Both teams couldn’t find the basket during the opening minutes of play, but a layup from Maize started an 11-3 run for the Wolfpack.
Elon struggled to penetrate the N.C. State defense throughout the period.
The Wolfpack led 16-8.
Burnett dropped a three-pointer early, but that’s all the scoring that took place during the period’s opening four minutes.
Four points from Maize – two from the free throw line and a layup – pushed the Wolfpack lead to 20-11 with 5:45 to go.
With both teams trading intermittent baskets, play for ball possession reached streetball quality and was highlighted by a push-off on Kaila Ealey that allowed Burnett to launch and drop a three from the top.
That shot cut the N.C. State lead down to five, 22-17, with 1:26 remaining.
With the building in an uproar over the no-call, Konig answered back with five unanswered points – a 3-pointer and a layup – that extended the Wolfpack lead to 27-17 at the break.
“We’re not always aesthetically looking good out there on offense, but we’re defending, we’re rebounding and hitting enough shots to be successful,” Wolfpack head coach Wes Moore said.
Closely-guarded play continued, and the Wolfpack got one back as Leslie drove on Saadia Munford, sending the smallish guard flying while using all the time and space to drop a jumper from the left elbow.
The N.C. State lead stood at 31-19 after three minutes.
The gutsiest sequence of the game occurred at the 5:40 mark when Nelson and Maize overpowered Ra’Shika White for ball possession.
After winning the ball, Maize threw a high-to-high pass to a waiting Konig who dropped a three and extended the Wolfpack margin to 16 points.
Both teams traded baskets and blows.
Burnett’s 3-pointer and jumper was matched by layups from Ealey and Leslie.
A three from Elon’s Meme Garner cut State’s lead slightly.
A jumper and a three from Nelson kept N.C State ahead 47-30 heading into the final period.
Drawing into the reserve tank, Moore subbed in Erika Cassell and she promptly drained a jumper sandwiched by a pair of 3s on four shot attempts.
The Wolfpack held its largest lead up to that point of the game, 55-32, with 6:44 to go.
“I’ve always had a lot of confidence in Erika,” Moore said.
“She knocked a few shots down today, which was great to see. I definitely think she’s capable of doing that. I think the other thing Erika can do is she can match up with the four or the five. She’s strong enough to go inside and guard somebody, and then she can move well enough to guard somebody out at the three-point line.”
With Leslie, Nelson, and Maize on the beach with under five to play, the Wolfpack worked the clock and drained the last ounces of energy from a hard-working Phoenix squad that played hard until the final horn.
(I’m) really disappointed we had to go out this way,” Smith said.
“We did not play our best basketball, got in a lot of quick foul trouble early in the game, and that took us out of our rhythm and momentum offensively. We could never find a rhythm, felt like from the first quarter. I told them, ‘Let’s just continue to fight, end this game fighting. Don’t give up,’ and they did just that. Proud of the team.”
Peter Koutroumpis, 401-323-8960, @pksport