RALEIGH (AP) — Kiara Leslie always seems to come up big for NC State when a Sweet 16 berth is on the line.
Leslie had 26 points and 10 rebounds, and State pulled away to beat Kentucky 72-57 on Monday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Freshman Elissa Cunane added 13 points and 15 rebounds, DD Rogers had 11 points and 11 boards, and the third-seeded Wolfpack (28-5) dominated the glass while earning their second straight trip to the Sweet 16.
State — which had a 50-31 rebounding advantage — will play second-seeded Iowa (28-6) on Saturday in the semifinals of the Greensboro Region.
It was reminiscent of what Leslie did a year ago, when she had 21 points and 11 rebounds in a victory over Maryland that sent the Wolfpack to their first Sweet 16 since 2007.
“Just the will to keep playing,” Leslie said. “I wanted to keep it going as long as I can.”
Now, she and State are going back to the familiar confines of the Greensboro Coliseum, where the Wolfpack went 1-1 earlier this month at the ACC Tournament.
“This is a bigger stage than the ACC Tournament, but I’m still excited about playing in front of the home crowd,” said Cunane, who grew up about 15 miles north of Greensboro. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere for us.”
Freshman Rhyne Howard scored 21 points and Maci Morris had 18 for the sixth-seeded Wildcats (25-8). They were 3 of 16 in the fourth quarter — all three field goals belonged to Morris — while the Wolfpack pulled away.
“They really, I thought, were focused on trying to take away Maci and Rhyne and just make it tough on them to score,” Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said, “and we just could not get the ball in the basket.”
State pushed its lead into double figures by scoring the first seven points of the fourth and clamped down on Kentucky the rest of the way, with Kai Crutchfield’s 3-pointer putting the Wolfpack up by 14 with 2½ minutes to play.
Crutchfield finished with 11 points for the Wolfpack, who reached the 28-win mark for the first time since 1980 and improved to 16-2 in NCAA Tournament games in Raleigh.
Kentucky: The Wildcats are tough to beat when they’re hitting shots and forcing turnovers with a press that averages 21.4 takeaways. They’re 18-0 when they outshoot their opponents. But shooting 32 percent — their worst night in nearly two months — simply won’t get it done. And they only scored 13 points off State’s 16 turnovers.
“Just a tough night when you shoot low 30s from the field to beat an outstanding team, and the reason we shot a low percentage was, credit North Carolina State’s defense,” Mitchell said. “I thought it was difficult to get open all night.”
NC State: The Wolfpack’s overachieving run will continue for at least a few more days. State, which for weeks has been down four players with season-ending injuries, used just six players when the outcome was in doubt against a Kentucky team that thrives on its up-tempo, high-pressure style. All six scored.
“Just couldn’t be prouder of a team and a group of young ladies,” coach Wes Moore said. “Been through some adversity, and they just keep amazing me.”
The Wolfpack are one of the nation’s best rebounding teams, ranking 13th in Division I with a margin of plus-8.8, while the Wildcats aren’t — they haven’t outrebounded an opponent in more than a month. State took full advantage of that discrepancy. The Wolfpack had more defensive rebounds (33) than Kentucky had total rebounds. … State, which outscored Kentucky 22-12 in the paint, improved to 27-2 when winning that stat.
Rogers has had double-doubles in three of her last five games. This was the ninth double-double of the season for Leslie and the third for Cunane.
The Wolfpack will take a long home-court winning streak into next season. State won its 29th straight nonconference game at Reynolds Coliseum, a string that dates to 2015.