Look Ahead — 2021 Team of the Year: Wolfpack will solidify spot as top women’s basketball program

After a breakthrough year in 2020, NC State is ready to prove it is an elite team

Elissa Cunane leads an NC State women’s basketball team that closed 2020 on a high and has even bigger plans for the coming year. (Mary Schwalm / AP Photo)

NC State’s 54-46 upset of No. 1 South Carolina last month was hailed by fans and the national media as the Wolfpack’s arrival among the elite of women’s college basketball.

For coach Wes Moore and his players, the victory — though significant — was just one more step forward in a journey that has yet to reach its destination.

“Obviously. I’m really proud,” Moore said in a Zoom conference immediately after ending the Gamecocks’ 29-game winning streak. “This is a game that will get attention, but it’s not March and we realize it’s just a game that we can hopefully build on and gain some confidence from, especially on the road.”

The Wolfpack’s ascension began when Moore, a former Kay Yow assistant, was hired in 2013. Although he got the team to the NCAA Tournament in his first season, it wasn’t until 2018-19 that things began to gain steam.

State won its first 21 games that season and made it to the NCAA’s Sweet 16 for the second straight year despite a rash of injuries that depleted the roster. Last season, the program checked off another box by claiming its first ACC Tournament championship since 1991.

With an 8-0 record (3-0 ACC) and a No. 4 national ranking, Moore and his players have their sights set on an even more prestigious title in 2021. It’s an ambitious goal that has led the Wolfpack to be picked as North State Journal’s Team of the Year for next year — the second straight year the team has been predicted to win that honor.

NC State coach Wes Moore guided the Wolfpack to an ACC Tournament title and a win over
top-ranked South Carolina in 2020. (Mary Schwalm / AP Photo)

“We can compete with the best of the best,” said senior forward Kayla Jones, whose 16 points and 11 rebounds led the way in the South Carolina win. “Of course, every team is good, and we have to break down film and don’t take anyone lightly, just play our game. Coach Moore prepares us to be a great team. We play to make ourselves better, and we know we are playing for something bigger each and every game we play.”

While winning a championship or even getting to the Final Four is a tall task for an upstart program in any sport, it’s especially difficult in women’s basketball because of the disparity between top-tier teams such as South Carolina, UConn, Baylor, Stanford and ACC rival Notre Dame.

But this season’s Wolfpack has the depth, talent and versatility to join that exclusive club. Through the first eight games this season, five different players have led the team in scoring.

It’s a group anchored by center Elissa Cunane.

Nicknamed “Big Smile” because of her cheery disposition, the 6-foot-5 junior has become a dominant force named as a preseason candidate for both the Naismith and Wooden awards as national Player of the Year.

Adding a perimeter element to her already strong low post game, she leads the team in both scoring (15.9 per game) and rebounding (8.7 per game).

Jones, a steady performer through her first three seasons at State, has upped her game again and is a steady veteran with a knack for playing her best in the biggest games.

Fellow senior Kai Crutchfield can play both guard positions and, like Jones, has shown an ability to take over games when the need arises — as she did in scoring 21 points in the Wolfpack’s season-opening win against North Florida.

Sophomore Jakia Brown-Turner earned ACC All-Freshman honors in her first college season, while fellow sophomore Jada Boyd — who missed the South Carolina game with an injury — is making a smooth transition from top reserve to starter on the wing.

The X-factor on the team is graduate transfer point guard Raina Perez.

The Big West Conference Player of the Year at Cal State Fullerton last season, Perez has stepped in to fill the void left by graduated team leader Aislinn Konig.

“I’m so thankful and we’re so blessed that she came to NC State,” Moore said of Perez. “We lost Ace Konig, who was our starting point guard the last three years, and Kaila Ealey, another one that started several games. We needed point guard experience. … She’s such a smart player and she’s a pro. She prepares, she’s focused.”

Perez’s addition paid dividends in the South Carolina win when, in her first start as a member of the Wolfpack because of Boyd’s injury, she contributed 11 points and four assists without committing a turnover while playing 37 of the 40 minutes against the Gamecocks’ full-court press.

What made her performance all the more important is that it helped State find a way to win despite a 30% shooting effort that included a subpar 3-of-13 performance from the team’s best player.

“Knowing that feeling of being on top of everybody, like we were the best, that really motivates you to keep going and play every day harder and harder,” Cunane said. “We know that it took a lot last year to get to the ACC Tournament and then win it all. It’s going to be double as hard this year. We really want to win, so we’re going to do everything we can to do that.”