NSJ 2020 Coach of the Year: Wes Moore returns NC State women to upper echelon

Wolfpack women’s basketball was denied a chance to compete for an NCAA title last spring, but this year’s team might be even better

NC State coach Wes Moore holds the ACC Tournament championship trophy after the Wolfpack defeated Florida State on March 8. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Before taking the NC State women’s basketball team to Greensboro for the ACC Tournament in March, coach Wes Moore gathered his players on the floor of Reynolds Coliseum.

He then called their attention to the rafters of the historic arena.

“Coach Moore pointed up to those banners and said, ‘Hey, it’s been a long time. We want to be a part of that,’” senior guard Aislinn Konig recalled. “That’s where we need to end up.”

Three days later, Moore’s motivational tactic paid off as the Wolfpack earned a championship banner of its own by rallying from a late five-point deficit to beat Florida State 71-66 in the tournament’s championship game.

The title was State’s first ACC crown of any kind since 1991 in men’s or women’s basketball, football or baseball, an accomplishment that helped Moore earn recognition as the North State Journal’s Coach of the Year for 2020.

Despite leading his team to a No. 8 final ranking during the interrupted 2019-20 season and starting the new campaign with an upset of the nation’s No. 1 team, South Carolina, Moore is reluctant to take credit for the success of his rapidly improving program.

“I’m just happy for the players. Obviously, they make all the plays out here,” the veteran coach said after the ACC Tournament final. “You can have the greatest scheme in the world, but they’ve got to make the plays. They’ve got to make the shots.”

As exciting as winning the conference championship was for the Wolfpack, the emotional high didn’t last.

Instead of carrying its momentum into the NCAA Tournament and contending for the second Final Four appearance in school history, the team was left to ponder what might have been after the coronavirus pandemic forced play to be halted on March 12.

“It was bittersweet,” Moore said. “We won the ACC championship. I’m thankful that we were able to get it in and play all of our games, really happy for our seniors. But then we felt like we were on a roll. So it was disappointing to not have a chance to have a run in the NCAA Tournament.

“But at the same time, we realize there’s a whole lot more important things going on in the world. I told them all year, ‘We want to do something special this year,’ and we talked about hanging a banner in Reynolds. To be able to do those and to be able to end the season with a win, you don’t get to do that very often, so that was kind of nice.”

With four starters and two of the best freshmen in the ACC all returning, to go along with a highly rated incoming recruiting class, Moore could afford to be philosophical about the missed opportunity last spring.

The 2020-21 Wolfpack is as deep and balanced as anyone in the country. In eight games thus far, five different players have led the team in scoring.

Elissa Cunane, the Wolfpack’s 6-foot-5 center, was a third-team All-American last season and is among the leading candidates for the Wooden and Naismith awards as the nation’s best player. Power forward Kayla Jones is an underrated veteran who has saved her best for the biggest games, including a 16-point, 11-rebound performance in the win at South Carolina.

Senior Kai Crutchfield can play both guard positions and has taken up more of the scoring load.

Shooting guard Jakia Brown-Turner earned ACC All-Freshman honors in her first college season, while fellow sophomore Jada Boyd — who is back after an early-season injury — is making a smooth transition from top reserve to starter on the wing.

Amid all that experience, Moore helped lessen the blow of losing senior Konig — the ACC Tournament MVP — by bringing Big West Conference Player of the Year Raina Perez as a graduate transfer from Cal State Fullerton to fill the void at point guard.

This year’s team is ranked No. 4 in the country.

With another group of top recruits already signed for the Class of ’21, Moore has succeeded in transforming the Wolfpack from a successful team to a sustained program on the verge of joining the elite of women’s college basketball.

“There’s a lot of excitement around our program, definitely,” said Moore, a former assistant to State legend Kay Yow who is now in his eighth season with the Wolfpack. “We’re in the high-cotton level.”