GREENSBORO — Elissa Cunane was just a youngster with dreams of a future basketball career when she attended her first ACC Women’s Tournament in her hometown a decade ago.
She still vividly remembers the scene, especially the celebratory balloon drop from the raters of Greensboro Coliseum when a new champion was crowned.
“I would see the balloons and the confetti growing up and I said, ‘Mom, I want a balloon,’” Cunane recalled. “But she said no, you can’t get one.”
Cunane is now a 6-foot-5 All-ACC center for NC State, and Sunday she was back in Greensboro Coliseum when the balloons began to float down. Only this time, instead of being in the stands watching, she was right there on the court.
And she didn’t have to ask anyone permission to pick up as many as she liked.
Cunane and her Wolfpack teammates earned them by beating Florida State 71-66 for their school’s first ACC Tournament title in 29 years.
“There’s no words to describe the type of feeling that the whole team has right now,” said senior guard Aislinn Konig, the tournament’s MVP. “This was a family that came together, really bought in and played together throughout this whole tournament and through the ups and downs through the season.
“Being able to celebrate that with them and the coaching staff and the amazing fans who filled up this arena for us is super special. To be part of this legacy of NC State that has had so many contributors from before us and will guarantee to have after us, it’s amazing to be part of that.”
State’s title didn’t just end an extended drought for the women’s basketball program. It was also the Wolfpack’s first league crown of any of the four major sports — men’s and women’s basketball, football and baseball — since 1992.
It was an accomplishment that set off a wild celebration among both the players and coaches on the court and the many of those pulling for them among the predominantly red-clad crowd of 7,324 in the stands.
But history wasn’t the only obstacle coach Wes Moore’s team had to overcome on its way to earning a new banner to hang from the rafters of Reynolds Coliseum.
After winning 21 of its first 22 games and rising to No. 4 in the national polls, State also had to overcome a mid-February slump that saw it lose three times in a four-game stretch, all at home in front of sellout crowds.
The good thing is the basketball season is a long one, filled with numerous peaks and valleys. And in this case, the Wolfpack left itself enough time to climb out of the depths and back to the top.
It’s a rally that began with a public tongue-lashing from Moore following a 70-65 loss to Duke on Play4Kay night.
Responding to the challenge of playing with greater urgency, State finished the regular season with a flourish. After regaining its confidence and shooting touch by beating Syracuse on Senior Night, then setting an NCAA record by making 13 straight 3-pointers in a road win at Virginia, the second-seeded Wolfpack rose to the occasion to start the postseason by getting better with each of its three tournament victories.
“A few weeks ago they thought we had peaked in January or something,” Moore said. “I feel like right now we got a good mojo about the team. We’ve got a lot of people that are playing and contributing, and I think that helps to keep everybody engaged. And winning doesn’t hurt.
“We saw the ball go through the net a little bit against Syracuse and Virginia the last two games, and I think that helped us now to get our confidence going. So I think we’re playing with confidence and I think we’re having fun.”
In addition to playing well, the Wolfpack (28-4) also caught a few breaks on the way to its championship.
First, third-seeded Duke was upset by Boston College in the quarterfinals. A day later, regular season champion Louisville suffered a semifinal ouster at the hands of No. 4 FSU, further clearing State’s path.
Even so, the Wolfpack found itself trailing by five with just under four minutes to play Sunday. But after 29 years of futility and frustration, this State team wasn’t about to be denied.
Getting contributions from multiple sources — including big baskets from Cunane and freshman Jakia Brown-Turner, along with a game-tying 3-pointer from Konig — State scored 13 of the game’s final 16 points to pull away for a victory that evoked memories of the coach that led State to its first four ACC titles — the legendary Kay Yow.
“As far as Coach Yow, having worked for her a couple of years, walking out on her court in Reynolds Coliseum, seeing the banners up top that she put up there, it’s been a long time,” Moore said afterward. “So for Coach Yow’s legacy and the NC State tradition she built, this is pretty awesome.”
It was also pretty special for a young girl, now all grown up, to finally get her hands on that balloon she wanted years before.
“I went down today and grabbed as many as I could!” Cunane said. “I have one in my locker. But it’s amazing to be on this stage and surrounded by all my best friends. It means a lot to us.”