RALEIGH, N.C. – A win streak of some sort will continue at Reynolds Coliseum on Sunday.
Many will say that the undefeated No. 7 N.C. State Wolfpack (21-0, 8-0) will top visiting rival North Carolina (13-9, 4-4), recent winners of three in a row, including a recent upset win over then-No. 1 Notre Dame.
The Wolfpack has owned the Tar Heels in the two teams’ last four match-ups, including three straight wins last season.
So much momentum now carrying the country’s lone undefeated NCAA Division I team (men’s or women’s) should keep N.C. State humming along.
However, that is exactly why this match-up against UNC presents the ideal trap game to truly test the Wolfpack’s mettle up to this point in the season.
Though not ranked, UNC carries a chip on its shoulder led by all-time ACC wins leader in coach Sylvia Hatchell.
This Tar Heels team is now hitting a stride that some expected of them.
Four of five starters average double-digit scoring outputs per game – Janelle Bailey (16.6 points, 8.7 rebounds), Paris Kea (16.3 points, 3.0 rebounds), Stephanie Watts (16.0 points, 5.5 rebounds) and Shayla Bennett (10.4 points, 3.4 rebounds).
And utility guard/forward Taylor Koenen is close averaging 9.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.
For the first time in the last five seasons, North Carolina possesses a formidable outside and inside presence that when clicking on all cylinders can contend with the top teams in the country.
Their recent run illustrates that point.
A great week for Kea (averaging 28.3 points and 6.0 assists per game) got her selected as NCAA Player of the Week and evened up the Tar Heels’ ACC record from an 0-4 start.
That has made it exciting to watch the ACC’s scoring leader (averaging 19.9 pointer per game) along with Bailey (19.0 points and 9.3 rebounds per game) and Watts (18.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.0 3-pointers per game) during that stretch.
But, this ‘little’ UNC run pales in comparison to N.C. State’s monstrous undefeated streak, the program’s best in history.
While led offensively by only two players averaging double figures, guards Kiara Leslie (15.3 points, 7.5 rebounds per game) and Aislinn Konig (11.6 points, 2.2 rebounds per game), the Wolfpack’s defensive play has made the difference.
It’s a long list of where the Wolfpack sits nationally in multiple categories, and the reason they’re ranked in the top-10.
N.C. State currently sits second nationally in fewest fouls committed per game (12.3), third in defensive rebounds per game (32.0), fourth in rebound margin (+12.7), sixth in field goal percentage defense (.333), seventh in rebounds per game (45.1), and 15th in scoring defense (55.5 points per game allowed).
So, how can anyone believe that the Wolfpack will not beat the Tar Heels?
For one reason that any rivalry game presents – setting aside numbers and probabilities, and just watching which team will win key individual match-ups against the other.
Kiara Leslie versus Paris Kea
Both are their respective team leaders on paper – with and without the ball.
The ultimate guard match-up showcasing ball control, outside shooting, drives through the paint, free throw shooting and defensive play.
Watching Kea and Leslie leaving it all on the court will make this game a special one.
Aislinn Konig versus Stephanie Watts
Possessing similar capabilities as the complimentary team leaders to Leslie and Kea, Konig and Watts are the silent assassins who don’t talk much, but let their efforts and results, offensively and defensively, speak volumes.
If there’s a chip on each’s shoulder, keep an eye closely on who’ll swipe the others’ first.
Expect some tough defensive stands between these two.
Erika Cassell/Elissa Cunane versus Janelle Bailey/Jaelynn Murray
It will be a very fierce battle in the paint between starters Cassell and Bailey.
Foul trouble will dictate how quickly Cunane comes in along with Murray, though the latter didn’t play in UNC’s recent overtime win over Georgia Tech.
If Bailey can keep her focus on scoring easy baskets which she’s prone to miss if taken off her game, then it will be tough for Cassell to match.
That’s where Cunane will have to pick up the slack as her soft touch has dropped valuable points for the Wolfpack at critical times in close games.
If able, Murray will need to carry valuable minutes while Bailey rests or gets in foul trouble and contain Cassell and Cunane accordingly.
If needed, Hatchell may throw Jocelyn Jones into that role.
DD Rogers vs Taylor Koenen
The unsung heroes off the glass will be both State’s DD Rogers and UNC’s Koenen.
Both are athletic and strong in rebounding while fast enough to initiate and finish transition play off the break.
Their endurance to support defensively may be a wash, so each’s offensive support will be important in deciding this game.
While Rogers’ 54-percent shooting from the field is a tad better than Koenen’s 44 percent, the Tar Heel has the edge when she forces the issue in drawing fouls, dropping free throws at 84-percent reliability compared to Rogers’ 62 percent conversion rate from the line.
Kai Crutchfield versus Bennett/Church
Aside from Leslie, Kea, Konig, Watts, and Koenen who all can drop 3s from the perimeter, the role that Crutchfield plays against starter Bennett and Church off the bench could be the game-deciding factor.
Crutchfield has put N.C. State in position to regain leads at critical times.
As Bennett has developed as a critical piece in the Tar Heels lineup, Church’s ascent as UNC’s designated 3-point specialist cannot be overlooked.
Though not running long minutes, her ability to put up game-changing shots has put Church in the ‘stay close to her’ status that State’s defense will have to be aware of, particularly in a close-scoring affair.
Expect a game for the ages
With so much that both teams have to offer, regardless of who wins, it will be a historic result with notable trivia answers for future reference.
If State wins, they add another win to an exceptional school, conference and national streak of success that will continue and gain more attention.
If North Carolina wins, it will come at the hands of another top-10 opponent within the same week and should earn the Tar Heels some votes in national polls.
The Tar Heels have no reason to feel pressure and are fighting to earn respect while trying to get on a run towards postseason play.
If N.C. State does fall into the trap that this game presents and comes out on the losing end, how quickly it recovers to face a loaded back-end of an ACC schedule will be needed to show that it was just part of a special season remaining to be judged fully.
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport