GREENSBORO – NC State center Elissa Cunane is no stranger to ACC Tournament championship games.
“I remember as a kid when the champions would be crowned, I would see the balloons and confetti, the Wolfpack sophomore recalled, “and I said, ‘Mom, I want a balloon’– and she said ‘No, you can’t get one.’”
Sunday afternoon in the Greensboro Coliseum, Cunane got her balloon – and helped pop 29 years of frustration for NC State women’s basketball players, coaches and followers.
Cunane’s two critical steals and five clutch free throws in the final three minutes put the cap on a furious 13-3 run to hand the Wolfpack its first ACC Tournament crown since 1991, coming from five points down to defeat Florida State 71-66 in the conference’s 43rd championship game.
The 6-5 center, playing in front of an overwhelmingly partisan NC State crowd – including what sounded like most of the population of her home town of Summerfield – scored 12 of her 18 points the final 20 minutes as the Pack (28-4) fought back from a five-point, 63-58 deficit, to win its fifth ACC tournament title.
“I went down and grabbed as many (balloons) as I could – I have one in my locker,” Cunane said. “It’s just amazing to be on this stage and surrounded by all my best friends. It means a lot to us.”
Ace drops bombs
Pack guard Ace Konig, whose 18 points tied Cunane for scoring honors, was a perfect 3 for 3 from the three-point arc the final 20 minutes (after going 1 for 6 the first half), hitting the final trey that tied the game at 63-all with 2:28 to play after the second of Cunane’s two thefts of Seminoles forward Kiah Gillespie on a loose ball rebound.
“There are no words to describe the type of feeling that the whole team has right now,” said the NC State senior, who became the first Wolfpack player since Sharon Manning in 1991 to earn the ACC Tournament Most Valuable Player honor.
“This was a family that came together and really bought in and played together throughout this whole tournament, and through the ups and downs through the season. Being able to celebrate that with them and the coaching staff and the amazing fans who filled up this arena for us is super special.”
Checking the box
“Obviously, I couldn’t be prouder of this group,” said Pack coach Wes Moore, who won his first ACC title in seven tries after earning nine Southern Conference Tournament crowns while at UT-Chattanooga. “We have come a long way in the last couple of years, and (Cunane and Konig) have played a really, really big role in that.”
And the former NC State assistant coach (1993-95) paid tribute to the legacy established by his one-time boss.
“Having worked for Kay Yow for a couple of years, walking out on her court in Reynolds Coliseum, seeing the banner up top that she put up there (listing NC State’s ACC regular-season and tournament titles won during her tenure), it’s been a long time. So for coach Yow’s legacy and the NC State tradition she built, this is pretty awesome.”
Game plan adjustments
Though NC State went into Sunday’s game with its highest seed (two) since 1991, had beaten the Seminoles by 17 points (68-51) in January and was coming off a relatively easy win over Boston College in the semis – compared to FSU’s grueling, last-minute, 62-60 semifinal upset of top-seeded Louisville – the game against the fourth-seeded Seminoles (24-8) was a nail-biter down to the last free throw.
As it had in its two previous tourney contests, the Pack opened with its third cold-shooting first quarter, trailing 19-14 after making just 5 of its first 13 attempts, including just 1 of 7 from three-point range (Konig’s only make of the first half).
Then, freshmen Jada Boyd, inserted for defensive purposes to start the second quarter, and Jackia Brown-Turner showed why they’d been selected to the all-conference freshman team. Brown-Turner connected on back-to-back threes and Boyd scored twice inside to ignite a 10-2 run that gave NC State a temporary
24-21 lead four minutes into the period.
’Noles senior guard Nicki Ekhomu scored on an and-one and a long three to give the lead back to FSU at 30-26. FSU then went the final four minutes of the half without another score, and Cunane, after an exchange of elbows with freshman center River Baldwin, ended the half with a three-point shot of her own to pull the Pack within one, 30-29, at intermission.
“I think I got my momentum going, and I was trying to focus on the next play,” she said. “They’re going to be a very physical team – D-I (NCAA Division I) is a physical league. So I had to keep playing through it.”
Focusing on the prize
The first half ended with five lead changes and six ties, and that pattern continued in the third quarter, with the Pack and Seminoles trading the lead twice more and knotting the game at 32 and 35. The Pack led by as many as six (45-39) late, but a 6-2 FSU run cut the gap to two, 47-45, entering the final 10 minutes.
Konig’s second three-pointer of the half, with 8:13 to play, again put the Pack up six, 54-48. But the Seminoles, sparked by treys from Gillespie, senior guard Nausia Woolfolk and freshman Sammie Puisis, outscored NC State 15-4 over the next five minutes to take its five point lead with 3:45 to play.
A Cunane layup cut the gap to three before the first of her two steals. The second, on a drive by Gillespie, led to Konig’s three that tied the game at 63 with 2:28 to go, off an assist from Pack forward Kayla Jones.
Kourtney Weber’s foul with 1:50 to go put the Pack in the bonus, and Cunane, after twice missing the front end of two-shot fouls, sank the final two with 13 seconds left. Brown-Turner also added two free throws during NC State’s 13-point run, and Jones rebounded Gillespie’s final three-point attempt, running up the floor toward the NC State bench as the buzzer sounded – and the balloons and confetti began to fall on the Pack’s victory celebration.
Brown-Turner, in her best game of the tournament, finished with 14 points and a game-high 10 rebounds for the first double-double of her career.
“Coach just told me to play hard,” she said. “Rebounding was one of the main things we knew we had to do coming in, so we knew we had to box out and rebound in order to win,” she said.
The Pack outrebounded FSU 41-30, a huge advantage since the Seminoles entered the game with a plus-7 rebounding advantage in their previous two tournament contests. The 11-board margin was the Pack’s biggest of the tournament.
Earning it over a formidable foe
Though Gillespie took scoring honors for the game with 25 points, and Woolfolk and Ekhomu each added 17, only two other players (Puisis and Weber) scored. Starting post Valencia Meyers played just three and a half minutes after picking up early fouls and didn’t take a shot, while Morgan Jones was 0 for 4.
FSU, led by Woolfolk’s four made threes, made 11 of 34 attempts from the arc, while NC State hit 10 of 23, with Konig matching Woolfolk’s four makes on nine attempts. Jones added six points and nine critical boards while Kai Crutchfield tallied five points, including a trey of her own (giving the Pack five different players with made threes).
FSU, which entered the game with the fifth-best shooting percentage of all the teams in the tournament (.462), was held to 34.4-percent (22 of 64) by the Pack, which shot an even 44 percent (22 of 50). In the final period the Pack made 5 of 9 shots (56 percent) while holding the Seminoles to 6 of 15 (40 percent), and outscored FSU in every period after the first.
Konig averaged 16.7 points for the tournament while shooting 43.6-percent (17 of 39) overall and 40 percent (10 of 25) from three-point range and a perfect 6 for 6 from the foul line. FSU’s Gillespie and Woolfolk joined her on the ACC All-Tournament First Team, along with Louisville’s Dana Evans and Wake Forest’s Ivan Raca. Cunane, who averaged 15 points and six boards for the three games (and made 3 of 4 three-point attempts, including both in the title game), earned second team all-tournament honors.
Kay’s legacy moves forward
Moore, still dripping from the water bottle shower his happy players gave him following the final buzzer, admitted that the title was important to win not only for his players but a Pack following that has remained strong and loyal through all the ups and downs of the past 29 years.
“We sold out three or four of our last home games (and lost three of them),” he noted. “So I was happy that we had a full house over here today, and we were able to send them home happy and knowing NC State is a champ. Coach Yow is the one that put this program on the map, and we’re just trying to, you know, take care of what she has left.”
Now the Pack waits for a week until March 16, when the selections for the NCAA Tournament will be announced. Meanwhile, there’s another trophy to add to the case in Reynolds Coliseum, in a spot that’s been vacant for almost three decades.
And some balloons to take home from Greensboro.
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