Peter Koutoumpis (@pksport)
RALEIGH, N.C. – There wasn’t much of a doubt, but there was some uneasiness felt early on in NC State’s 96-68 First-round NCAA Tournament win over Longwood at Reynolds Coliseum on Sunday.
The No. 1 seed needed to endure an expected furious charge from a fearless Lancers squad.
Head coach Wes Moore’s ACC championship squad took its first step in continuing along the path toward a national championship.
Five players led the Wolfpack with double-digit finishes – Raina Perez (16 points), Jakia Brown-Turner (15 points), Elissa Cunane (13 points), Diamond Johnson (12 points), Jada Boyd (12 points) – part of a group of 12 players posting points of the 13 total who played.
On the other side, the three leaders of a Longwood squad that had earned its first-ever Tournament win in Thursday’s First Four made it interesting.
A career-high 25 points, including 5-of-13 beyond the arc, read Tra’Dayja Smith’s stat line.
Kyla McMakin’s 19 points and Akila Smith’s 10 points supported the gutsy effort that led coach Rebecca Tillett’s group of nine that played in front of the majority-red crowd of 5,483 in attendance.
Played to script
No one would have expected an upset but Longwood never rolled over – posting 68 points, close to its 71.5 season scoring average, showed that.
At the same time, leading by just four points after the opening quarter, NC State rallied with a never-ending offensive onslaught during the final 30 minutes that produced an all-time NCAA Tournament game-high 96 points and 28-point margin of victory to go along with a 30th win on the season, all new program records.
“We just wanted to take the lead and try to stretch it,” Perez said.
“I think we were just in our heads. We missed a lot of shots, we didn’t get back. But we tried to stretch the lead and just wanted to come out strong and just dominate the game.”
“We had streaks kind of, but we have been off a couple of weeks, so I think it was good to get back out there and be able to get a little momentum, a little confidence going,” Moore added.
Give credit where credit is due
The Wolfpack coach praised the effort the Lancers put forward, and was appreciative of it to activate his team to respond accordingly.
“You know, man, they had some people who could score the ball,” Moore pointed out.
“Some match-up problems with Smith and McMakin. And of course today the other Smith stepped up big, too. So they had a lot of weapons…They are a scrappy team. They have some kids out there that are really talented, can score the ball. You know, you are glad to get the win and move on and we know a long path ahead of us, but we’re focused on one step at a time.”
For Tillett, the increase in turnovers in the second quarter led to a big Wolfpack offensive barrage that her team worked hard and was determined to recover from.
A 19-2 NC State run put the the margin of difference at 42-21 at halftime.
Even while being held to single digits in the second quarter, outscored 23-6, the Lancers only fell seven points short during the entire second half.
“We really feel that that run they went on in the second quarter, obviously credit to them, we turned it off,” Tillett said.
“We weren’t turning it over prior to that. We had one turnover prior to that, I think at 4:38 in the second quarter. And we turned it over four times, and they got fueled. They got momentum that, you know, you don’t want to give a team like that that type of momentum. And we weren’t hitting shots, which is not like us either. Credit to their D. So we felt like just kind of getting back to being ourselves. We knew we had to hit big shots to stay even to them in parts of the game or long periods of the game. So I think it was just, you know, do what we do well, try to find ways to get stops.”
Going deep and trading punches
“I think it was just our mindset coming out of halftime,” Akila Smith said.
“We just wanted to be aggressive. We know we’re a good offensive team, so we just put that together a good first half.
“I think just being true competitors,” Tra’Dayja Smith added.
“You are not just going to lay down and take punch after punch. You are going to punch back. And basketball is a game of runs. We knew that second half we were going to go on a run eventually and that’s when the time came and we matched scoring with them.”
While Tra’Dayja Smith kept putting up long range shots, so did Perez and Brown-Turner.
Cunane, Brown-Turner, and Kayla Jones all worked to contain Akila Smith off the dribble as well as clean the glass with a combined 17 rebounds.
A. Smith had put up 32 points and 13 rebounds two nights earlier against Mount St. Mary’s.
NC State out-rebounded the Lancers 50-38 overall as Moore put fresh legs on the floor for the majority of the fourth quarter.
“There was so many people that contributed,” Moore said.
“And that’s what you need this time of year. You need a lot of depth. And I think we have that. And we have a lot of people that can step up on a given day. So five people in double figures and, you know, two more just right outside of it. So it’s exciting to see that this time of year.”
Moving on to the Second Round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament, NC State will next face No. 9 Kansas State on Monday at 4 p.m.
The Wildcats overcame a seven-point halftime deficit and beat No. 8 Washington State 50-40 to earn the chance to play the Wolfpack earlier in the day.
Both teams played each other previously this season in Reynolds, with NC State posting a 90-69 win back on Nov. 19th.
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