Peter Koutroumpis (@pksport)
RALEIGH, NC – What a day Saniya Rivers and the NC State Wolfpack had on Sunday at Reynolds Coliseum.
Believe in yourself
It’s not to say that it was a likely result, let alone a possible one to most, but a double-digit winning finish against the No. 2 team in the country during the opening week of the season definitely set expectations higher.
In front of a loud and boisterous sold out crowd of 5,500, the Wolfpack definitively beat the University of Connecticut Huskies by a 92-81 margin, and extended its record to 2-0.
“Just really proud of the way we were resilient,” NC State coach Wes Moore said.
“When you fall down and give up 25 points in the first quarter against a great team like that, it would have been really easy to say, ‘Oh wow, we’re just overwhelmed here,’ but they just kept their composure, kept their focus and kept fighting.”
Welcome to the jungle
The first loss to NC State in 25 years had Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma praising the Wolfpack’s efforts while listing multiple shortfalls of his team’s performance.
“We got our asses beat, plain and simple,” Auriemma said.
“This was the worst offensive performance, in terms of running our offense, in terms of ball movement, you know, sharing the ball, moving without the ball, changing sides of floor from one side to the other. It’s like we were content to just stand. Our offense was non existent, and defensively we didn’t get stops.
“I could go on and on about the list of things I was disappointed in today.”
Rivers and the merry cast of players
Rivers was the central figure who created havoc and chaos for UConn with a career day – 33 points and 10 rebounds, three blocked shots, five assists and three steals.
The supporting cast on offense included notable finishes from Aziaha James (18 points), Zoe Brooks (12 points) and Madison Hayes (10 points).
From the experienced tandem in the post, River Baldwin finished with six points and six rebounds, while Mimi Collins contributed eight points and eight rebounds.
“We need them to be leaders and to step up and play well, in games like this — really, in every game,” Moore said of Baldwin and Collins.
“I don’t want this to be the peak of the season. This is a great win, but this is the starting point. We’ve got a long way to go, but those two have a lot of experience. They played in a lot of big games, and they’re talented. We need them to continue to step up and give us balance, because (Rivers and James) can’t do it by themselves every night. We’re gonna have to have some other people step up and take some of the scoring on and things like that. But I thought defensively and on the boards, they did a really good job tonight and we needed that.”
Meet me on the other side
Even while Paige Bueckers had 27 points, Aaliyah Edwards added 21, Azzi Fudd scored nine, and Qadence Samuels dropped 14 for UConn, a one-point (43-42) lead at halftime put the Wolfpack in prime position to come out fast and furious and take control in the second half.
Following two made free throws from Hayes, the score was tied at 45 with 8:01 to go in the third quarter.
A three-pointer from Hayes and one from Buecker’s kept both sides even until NC State took advantage of UConn missed opportunities.
Collins connected with a 3-pointer followed by a jumper from Rivers and a layup from Brooks, a combination that put the Wolfpack up 57-50 and soon had the Huskies reeling.
Playing the numbers right
Though Edwards cut the Wolfpack lead down to three at 64-61, UConn was caught unprepared defensively for NC State’s effective execution of its 4-out-1-in offense.
Facing a 2-3 zone which it wove through, the Wolfpack eventually extended its lead to 12 (73-61) with 6:09 remaining.
UConn worked to chip away at its deficit, but it soon became a game of chasing the lead against time which eventually ran out to the delight of the jubilant NC State players and their fans.
Celebrate good times
They had reason to celebrate an 11-point win after suffering previous consecutive gut-wrenching losses to the Huskies in 2022 – in both the NCAA Tournament and in the Fall last season.
“The atmosphere was fantastic, so I think that had something to do with it,” Auriemma said looking back at the impact of it all.
“The crowd was incredibly supportive and NC State played off the crowd. I told Wes, their team is 10 times better than it was last year. They’re more together, they play together better. They know who they are. Today, everything they did was better than ours.”
“I can’t explain it; it was crazy,” James said looking back at the moment when the final buzzer sounded.
“I wouldn’t say crazy that we won, but just the moment was crazy and that I could share that with my teammates. It was beautiful.”
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