Streak over, Wolfpack reset for stretch run

NC State women won its first 21 games before losing at home to North Carolina

NC State coach Wes Moore, left, speaks with Kiara Leslie during the Wolfpack’s win over Pitt on Jan. 10. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — The ride has been exhilarating, with plenty of ups and downs, twists and turns.

But even as his NC State women’s basketball team continued to win, setting a school record for its best start ever and climbing to No. 7 in the national polls, coach Wes Moore had a feeling that the fun was about to end.

He said he could see it coming well before Sunday’s 64-51 loss to archrival North Carolina before a packed house at Reynolds Coliseum, the Wolfpack’s first in 22 games this season.

“The last week or so, we just haven’t had mojo,” Moore said. “We’ve just been going through the motions in practice. Even in the games, we need more energy, we need more enthusiasm. We don’t have a ton of personality out there right now. We’ve got to get back to having some fun.”

That might figure to be easier now that the weight of being the nation’s only undefeated team of either gender has been lifted from State’s collective shoulders.

That’s not the case, though, according to junior forward Erika Cassell.

She said that while she and her teammates would like to have kept their run of success going for as long as possible, there wasn’t a collective feeling of relief once it finally came to an end with Sunday’s first loss.

“I don’t feel like there was pressure,” said Cassell, who had eight points and 12 rebounds in the game. “Of course, everyone was wondering how long the streak is going to go on. It’s just something for us to bounce back from.”

Despite all the winning, the Wolfpack has already gotten plenty of experience bouncing back from adversity this season.

The team lost starting point guard Kaila Ealey to a season-ending knee injury during preseason practice. In its ACC opener against Duke, starting shooting guard and second-leading scorer Grace Hunter also tore her ACL and was lost for the season.

State’s backcourt depth was further challenged two games later against Pittsburgh when backup Armani Hawkins was also lost with an ACL tear.

“When any teammate goes down,” graduate forward Kiara Leslie said. “Everybody has to step up.”

Leslie, who missed the 2016-17 season with a knee injury of her own while playing for Maryland, has done her part by leading the team in scoring (15.4 per game), rebounding (7.7 per game), steals (29) and blocked shots (20) while ranking second in assists with 63.

Junior Aislinn Konig moved into the point guard spot and has done an admirable job, averaging nearly 12 points and four assists per game while shooting 40.1 percent from beyond the 3-point line — 60 percentage points better than last season, when she set a school record by making 91 treys.

State has also gotten a boost inside from 6-foot-5 freshman Elissa Cunane, who has twice been named the ACC’s Rookie of the Week.

But as resilient as the Wolfpack has been, the depth issues the injuries have caused may be starting to take their toll on the able-bodied players that remain as they enter the season’s homestretch.

“It’s tough because you don’t have a lot of subs and depth in practice, so you’re tempted to pace yourself,” Moore said. “We’re fortunate to have some great practice guys to go against. We’ve got to figure out a way to rotate and keep these players a little fresher, especially on the perimeter.”

Moore said that he rarely talked about the streak, concentrating instead on what he called a “next game up” mentality. But there have been recent indications that the strain of trying to stay unbeaten was beginning to take its toll on his players.

They were taken to overtime at home before beating bottom feeder Virginia Tech on Jan. 20, then slogged through pedestrian wins against Clemson, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest — two of which are also in the lower half of the ACC standings.

In each of those victories, State failed to shoot better than 43 percent. It combined to go 16 of 57 from 3-point range while committing an average of 15 turnovers. All those things finally caught up with it against the Tar Heels, especially during a second half in which the Wolfpack made just four of 23 field goal attempts, went 3 of 14 on 3-pointers, turned the ball over nine times and was outscored 33-19.

“We can compete with anybody if we’re playing our ‘A’ game,” Moore said. “But we’ve got to get back defending and rebounding, the boring stuff, and then offensively we’ve got to be a little more up-tempo.”

State doesn’t have much time to figure out how to do that.

Not only is it coming off its first loss, but it’s about to enter its most difficult stretch of the season. The next three games come against ranked opponents — at No. 24 Florida State on Thursday, followed by a trip to No. 18 Syracuse and a return home for a showdown against No. 5 Notre Dame.

“We definitely have a chip on our shoulders,” Cassell said. “Of course, we don’t want this feeling again, so I’m sure in practice we’re going to change. We’re going to pick up the slack (because now we) know that anybody can beat us.”