N.C. State lost to UConn. But let's not forget what the Wolfpack accomplished.
Wes Moore -- and the four players leaving him -- have turned N.C. State into a national destination brand.
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North Carolina State fought, and clawed, and scrapped, and shot, and rebounded, and never gave up.
But none of it was quite enough.
The Wolfpack’s run in the NCAA Tournament ended Monday night in Bridgeport – just 75 miles from the campus of their opponent, the No. 2 UConn Huskies.
N.C. State was trying to end a drought; it hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1998. Meanwhile, UConn was trying to continue a streak; there hasn’t been a Final Four played without the Huskies since 2007. UConn coach Geno Auriemma said after the game that he told N.C. State’s Wes Moore that he wished both of them could go.
That could not happen. The Huskies will continue dancing into Minneapolis. The Wolfpack are going back to Raleigh, having seen their ultimate goal snatched away from them.
Fans and pundits alike will point to two reasons as to why N.C. State lost this game – the referees, and UConn’s overwhelming homecourt advantage in what is supposed to be a neutral site stage. And indeed, the refs were not immune to blunders. Somehow, Olivia Nelson-Ododa played part of the fourth quarter and two periods of overtime and was never called for a fifth foul, despite physically defending Elissa Cunane in the paint and making obvious contact with Kayla Jones on a lay-up attempt. And indeed, despite N.C. State being a No. 1 seed, the court was one extremely familiar to the No. 2 seed, and one its fans could easily commute to.
But N.C. State took UConn to double overtime. The Wolfpack had their chances to win. And there are quantifiable reasons as to why they didn’t.
N.C. State shot 30.4% from three-point range, and just 1 of 10 from deep in the first half. The Wolfpack’s season average was 36.6% from behind the arc.
N.C. State gave up 14 turnovers, which UConn turned into 16 points. It’s the most turnovers N.C. State has had in more than a month. The Wolfpack had just six points off the Huskies’ eight turnovers.
N.C. State allowed UConn to grab 13 offensive rebounds, in which it turned into 14 second-chance points. It’s the fifth-most offensive rebounds N.C. State has given up to an opposing team. The Wolfpack, meanwhile, had just eight offensive boards and three second-chance points.
The Wolfpack’s All-American center, Elissa Cunane, took 13 shots in 48 minutes of play. That’s about one shot attempt every 3.7 minutes. Against a team that had both of its post players in foul trouble late in the game, N.C. State probably should’ve tried to force the ball into Cunane’s hands more often.
UConn had 11 more shot attempts than N.C. State.
UConn had Paige Bueckers, and N.C. State did not. Nor did N.C. State have a player who could guard her effectively for the entirety of the game. Bueckers had 27 points, 15 of which she scored in overtime.
“We didn't do a very good job on Paige Bueckers,” Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said. “You've got to try to make somebody else shoot it, and we didn't quite get that done… We were going to try to trap her some, try to ice her on one side of the floor, and we just didn't get it done.”
The Wolfpack’s loss was the last game ever in an N.C. State uniform for Kai Crutchfield, Kayla Jones and Raina Perez, the trio of fifth-year seniors who have now exhausted their eligibility. And it’s incredibly likely that it was also the final game in a Wolfpack kit for Elissa Cunane, who has made it known throughout the season that she intends to enter the WNBA Draft.
“I'm just excited to have that next step available, and I'm just going to bring everything I can (to the WNBA). N.C. State has made me into a great player, a great person, and instilled hard work into me,” Cunane said Monday. “So I'm just going to carry that through basketball and just through the rest of my life.”
Undoubtedly, this particular defeat will sting for the Wolfpack and their fans everywhere. N.C. State was so, so, so close to making the Final Four. Not just once, but three times on Monday night.
And now, Wolfpack fans will suffer through another opening weekend of April where the two other schools in the Triangle – UNC and Duke – get all of the attention. The men’s teams at both schools are going to face each other in the Final Four for the first time ever, which likely means that the local media in the Tar Heel State will quickly move on from how far the Wolfpack came and how they lost. They’ll move onto stories about ticket prices for UNC vs. Duke, and how Brady Manek grooms his beard, and how many times Coach K has told people to “shut up” this season.
But we mustn’t forget what Crutchfield, Jones, Perez and Cunane transformed N.C. State into.
“I can't say enough about that group and what they've done,” Moore said. “Not only hanging banners in Reynolds Coliseum, but also just the lives they've touched and the people that just have really bought into our program.”
Let’s go back to the fall of 2017, when Crutchfield and Jones stepped onto N.C. State’s campus for the first time as students. Moore was entering his fifth season on the job in Raleigh, and had just led the Wolfpack to its first NCAA Tournament victory in a decade. Neither Crutchfield or Jones started a single game as freshmen, but they listened. They stuck with Moore. And soon enough, by the time their sophomore seasons rolled around, they had real roles. Crutchfield and Jones – two North Carolina natives – don’t always score the most points or create the can’t-miss highlights, but they were absolutely the foundation for what Moore has built. The two players were integral to a program that has now gone to four straight Sweet 16’s, and just played in the Elite Eight for the first time since 1998 and just the second time ever in program history.
Cunane came in the fall of 2018. A native of Summerfield, North Carolina, she grew up going to ACC Tournaments at the Greensboro Coliseum and loved playing in the balloons that rained down on the floor after teams won. Duke never seriously recruited her, and she idolized a Tar Heel – Erlana Larkins. Still, she picked N.C. State because she saw what Moore was building with Crutchfield and Jones, and he sold her on a vision: being the centerpiece of his one-in, four-out system that forced teams to pick its poison – commit multiple defenders to Cunane, or deal with the shooters that Moore surrounded her with.
“When we were recruiting her, we knew in our system, the way we like to play, that she could be really good,” Moore said.
That vision came to fruition. In Cunane’s freshmen season, N.C. State started regularly appearing in national polls again. In her sophomore campaign, she flourished in Greensboro and led the Wolfpack to their first ACC title since 1991. Cunane has now danced in the confetti at the Coliseum three times as a player, leading N.C. State to back-to-back-to-back ACC Tournament crowns.
Along the way, Raina Perez joined up. Ahead of the 2020-21 season, the pint-sized play-making transfer from Cal State Fullerton wanted to come to a team that was going to play in big games with real stakes. From afar, Perez had seen Cunane, Crutchfield and Jones do just that. In Perez’s first season with the Pack, they beat South Carolina in Columbia, and again, they won the ACC title, and again, they made the Sweet 16. When it was possible for Perez, Jones and Crutchfield to come back this season and do it all again, none of them really hesitated.
What those four players have done is this: After a long hiatus from the spotlight, they have turned N.C. State women’s basketball into a national brand again. One that consistently competes for conference championships, top 10 placement in the AP Poll, high seeds in the NCAA Tournament, and one that attracts talented players.
Much like Perez, Diamond Johnson left Rutgers and came to N.C. State to play in big games against the best opponents – even if it meant that she was going to come off the bench for the majority of this season.
And, just in case you forgot, Johnson was a 50-40-90 player at Rutgers — the only freshman since 2009 to pull that statistical feat off. She could’ve transferred anywhere. She chose N.C. State, where she knew playing time would not be in abundance for her. And indeed, Johnson’s stats took a dip, but she still was a consistent fire off the bench for the Wolfpack, doing well enough in her role to win ACC Sixth Player of the Year.
“This is definitely everything I wanted. I wanted to play on the big stage, play with great players, play for a good coach,” Johnson said during the first weekend of the tournament. “Once I knew what my role was, I tried to do the best that I can in it… It's been good to me. I honestly like it. We need spurts off the bench, keep the momentum going, that's what I try to provide for my team. Do a little bit of everything. That's what helped us get here. Everybody played their role, and played it right.”
With the four veterans departing, this N.C. State team now belongs to Johnson, Jakia Brown-Turner, Jada Boyd and Camille Hobby. The latter two have long patiently waited for starting roles and have performed admirably when called upon. Hobby was a defensive force in N.C. State’s second round win against Kansas State and 6-foot-7 All-American Ayoka Lee, and Boyd had 14 points in 16 minutes against UConn.
The other thing is this: N.C. State has no ESPN Top 100 freshmen incoming in this class, but Moore has four roster spots available. He could be banking on some reinforcements to arrive through the transfer portal. And – like Johnson and Madison Hayes last season – a few will probably come.
Transfers were not something N.C. State could rely on when Moore first took this job. But he – and the four players leaving him – have turned the Wolfpack into a destination program, and one that likely won’t take another 24 years between Elite Eight appearances.
During his press conference Monday night, UConn coach Geno Auriemma said this:
“I think it's a testament to (Moore), his staff, his players that, you know — the ACC, for the longest time, didn't belong to N.C. State. Everyone else always assumed it was going to be Notre Dame or Louisville or Duke for the longest time. I think Wes went in there and changed all that, and he did it in a fairly rapid fashion, and he did it the right way with a great group of kids.”
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