RALEIGH – NC State’s women’s basketball team begins play this evening in the 2020 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Tournament in Greensboro with its highest seed in 30 years — and perhaps its best shot at an elusive tournament championship it hasn’t won since 1991.
Coming off a record-breaking regular-season finale performance in a 75-64 victory at Virginia on Sunday, the Pack enters the postseason with the identical record (25-4) it achieved last year, and a 14-4 final conference mark. The 14 wins is the most in program history, thanks to the addition of two extra ACC contests this season.
That mark gives the Pack the No. 2 seed in this year’s tournament – it’s highest since earning the top seed in 1990. NC State opens tourney play tonight at 6 p.m. against No. 7-seed Georgia Tech, which downed No. 15-seed Pitt 68-58 on Thursday. The Panthers opened the tournament with a stunning 67-65 upset of 10th-seed (and defending ACC Tournament champ) Notre Dame on Wednesday.
Tonight’s rematch with the Yellow Jackets provides the first of three opportunities for the Pack to gain some measure of payback for the trio of setbacks that derailed what was shaping up to be a possible regular-season conference title for the first time in 30 years and the accompanying top seed for the tournament. But a 66-59 loss to Louisville on Feb. 13, followed three days later by Tech’s 65-61 upset in Raleigh, and then Duke’s 70-65 win in the annual Play4Kay game on Feb. 24, relegated the Pack to the runner-up spot in the ACC final standings behind Louisville’s 16-2 conference tally.
State still faced the prospect of dropping as low as a No. 4 seed after the loss to the Blue Devils, but a cathartic 69-60 Senior Night victory over Syracuse, in the home finale on Feb. 27, and the win over the Cavaliers Sunday gave NC State a two-game edge over the third-place Devils.
“I feel pretty good about where we are right now,” Pack coach Wes Moore said following the team’s final pre-tournament practice at Reynolds Coliseum Tuesday. “We went through a little stretch there where we struggled, but the last couple of games, we’ve played better and got some momentum. Those two wins were big for our psyche.”
There were a number of cracks in the Pack’s three losses: a rare rebounding deficit (27-22) against the Cardinals; a defensive letdown against Georgia Tech that allowed the Jackets to hit 47.3-percent (26 of 55) from the floor, the second-best night by an opponent this season; and a 16 costly turnovers against Duke that gave the Devils a 23-2 advantage in points off miscues.
But the one constant in all three losses was a slump by the team’s top scorers. Louisville, led by senior post Kylee Shook, held Pack center Elissa Cunane to her worst shooting night of the season (1 for 12) and blocked seven shots. At the same time, NC State’s perimeter players: senior guard Ace Konig, junior Kai Crutchfield and freshman wing Jackia Brown-Turner, were a combined 7 for 28 (25 percent) – including 4 for 15 from 3-point range. Against both Tech and Duke, the Pack never shot better than 25 percent from the arc after averaging 36-percent accuracy through the first 12 ACC contests.
“We didn’t shoot well (in the losses), and I think we’re still turning the ball over too much,” Moore commented (an average of 13 the last five games, including 18 against Syracuse). “But we also played some very good teams in those losses. This league is unforgiving – if you’re not knocking down shots, or making mistakes, you’re going to be in trouble.”
But both coach and players feel the setbacks, while costing NC State a possible regular-season conference crown (and a top-five national ranking; the Pack dropped from No. 4 to No. 10 heading into the ACC Tournament), may have been a timely blessing in disguise.
“I’m almost glad that it happened now so that we can be refocused going into the postseason,” Konig said. “I think (the losses) were a product of our youth – we were having so much success with the younger players, so early, and it starts to feel easy. But this isn’t a conference where you can just ride on your momentum. You have to be focused and play your best every single game. I think we’re back on track – we’re doing the right things in practice, showing up early, taking things seriously. We’re giving as much as we can because we all know these games are the last time this team will be able to play together.”
Victory tonight would pit NC State, in all likelihood barring an upset, against Duke in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. semifinal. The winner will most likely face the top-seeded Cardinals in Sunday’s noon title game. Louisville is 3-0 all-time against NC State in ACC Tournament play, ousting the Pack in the semifinals each of the last two years – in addition to the earlier loss in Raleigh this season that the Pack would dearly like to reverse this weekend.
Seniors Shine, Pack Sets Three-Point Record In Regular-Season Finales
Coming off the Feb. 24 loss to Duke, NC State’s third straight setback at home, Moore felt the clash with a Syracuse team that came in having won five of its last six games was a critical test of just how his team would respond to the unexpected adversity it has faced the previous two weeks.
The fact it was Senior Night also had the potential of complicating things since it’s a custom to start all seniors, even if they have not been in the starting five during the season. Moore followed custom, starting Kaila Ealey, Grace Hunter and Erika Cassell along with Konig and junior forward Kayla Jones – and got some very unexpected results.
On a night when Cunane, the Pack’s leading scorer and rebounder, played a season-low 11 minutes, scored a season-low eight points and fouled out for the first time in her two-year career, Cassell tallied a season-best 12 points and tied her season high for rebounds (nine); Hunter played a season-high 31 minutes, scoring 10 points, and Konig hit three three-pointers (after going 2 for 20 in four previous games) en route to a team-high 13 points in the 69-60 win that sewed up second place in the ACC.
“I’m really happy for the seniors,” Moore said afterward. “We hadn’t been getting off to great starts, so we made the decision to start them, because it was Senior Night and I didn’t think we had a whole lot to lose. And they gave us a big lift right off the bat. We didn’t plan on playing them as long as some of them did, but they were doing well, so we rode with it, and they helped give us a big win when we needed it.”
“Being out there with the other seniors hadn’t happened in a long time,” Cassell said,” so that was a lot of motivation for me. “I’ve always focused on rebounding, and I just shot the easy shots that came to me. It all came together for me tonight – and if we come together like we did, we can really do something special.”
Sunday’s game in Charlottesville gave NC State not only a record 14th ACC victory for the season, but a shooting clinic that left even the ACC’s TV commentators speechless. Seven different players, led by Konig’s four made treys (her best game since hitting a career-high seven at Clemson on Jan. 30), and a 3-for-4 effort by Jones (tying her career high), made NC State’s first 13 three-point attempts before finishing the game 14 for 22 from the arc, a season-best 63.6-percent effort.
The 13 straight threes are not only a new NC State record, but also the NCAA Division I record, breaking the previous mark of 11 made threes set by TCU in 1996 and tied by Bowling Green in 2016.
“Yeah, I worked with them on that three-point shooting,” Moore said afterward — tongue firmly in cheek.
Pack Quartet Earn All-Conference Honors
Sophomore center Elissa Cunane led four NC State players chosen for postseason honors with her selection to the All-ACC First team earlier this week.
A second-team honoree and all-freshman team selection a year ago, the 6-5 native of Summerfield, NC was named to the first team this year by both a vote of the ACC’s Blue Ribbon Panel and its coaches. Cunane leads the Pack with a 16.5 points-per-game scoring average, and tops the team with 10 rebounds a game – the only player in the conference to average a double-double this season. She is also the only player in the conference to rank in the top six in the league in scoring, rebounding and field-goal percentage (.552).
Cunane tallied an ACC-best 14 double-doubles this season, scoring 20 or more points 10 times, including seven ACC games. She’s also been named to the Lisa Leslie Award Top 10, the Wooden Award Late Season Top 20 and the Citizen Naismith Trophy Top 30 watch lists. She is the fifth NC State player in the last four years to earn first team all-conference honors, joining Miah Spencer and Dominique Wilson (2017), Chelsea Nelson (2018) and Kiara Leslie (2019).
Senior guard Ace Konig earned second team honors from the conference’s coaches and honorable mention selection by the ACC’s Blue Ribbon Panel. The Surrey,
British Columbia, native led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio during ACC competition with a 2.27 mark. Konig averaged 10.4 points and 3.7 assists per game during the regular season, and ranks fifth in the ACC in three-point field-goal percentage (352, 70 of 199). She remains one of just five players in program history with 200 or more career three pointers and currently ranks second in NC State history in career threes, with 284.
Wing Jackia Brown-Turner and forward Jada Boyd became the first pair of NC State first-year players named to the ACC’s All-Freshman team.
Brown-Turner started in 28 of 29 games for the Pack, averaging 9.4 points per game while shooting .423 (104 of 246 from the field. Her 273 points to date rank just outside the top 15 among all freshmen in program history. Brown-Turner scored in double figures in 11 of 18 ACC games, with a career-best 18 points against Florida State and Miami – including the game-winning shot against the Hurricanes.
Boyd averaged 7.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in 15.8 minutes a contest off the bench. She scored in double figures in 10 games, seven in ACC play.
Louisville senior guard Dana Evans was named the ACC Player of the Year, while Boston College’s Joanna Bernabei-McNamee was named the Coach of the Year after leading the Eagles – picked to finish 13th in the conference in preseason – to a sixth-place finish and an 18-11 (11-7 ACC) record, the program’s best-ever in conference play.
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