Wolfpack women face early test vs. top-ranked South Carolina

COVID cancellations opened the door for No. 8 NC State to measure itself against the No. 1 Gamecocks

Senior guard Kai Crutchfield and No. 8 NC State will travel to Columbia to play No. 1 South Carolina on Thursday at Colonial Life Arena. (Ethan Hyman / The News & Observer via AP)

Elissa Cunane had a flashback recently.

In it, she found herself reliving the victory against Florida State last March that earned NC State its first ACC women’s basketball tournament championship since 1991.

The dream wasn’t a matter of the All-American center trying to hold onto the glory of the past. Instead, she interpreted it as a challenge to accomplish even more this season.

“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.”

The Wolfpack is off to a 2-0 start and ranked eighth nationally after the first week of play in 2020-21. But Cunane and her teammates will need all the inspiration they can muster on Thursday when they travel to Columbia to take on top-ranked South Carolina.

Coach Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks were 32-1 last season and, despite losing two key starters to graduation, they’re once again loaded. They’re also determined to bring home the national championship they felt they were denied when the NCAA Tournament was canceled by the coronavirus pandemic.

Thursday’s top-10 matchup, which will be televised by ESPN2, represents an opportunity for State’s rapidly improving program to take another step toward elite status.

Coach Wes Moore called it a win-win situation because, regardless of the outcome, the game will serve as a valuable early-season measuring stick for how far the Wolfpack has come and how much further it still has to go between now and the start of the postseason in March.

“It’s a big challenge for us, but it’s also an opportunity,” Moore said. “It’s going to be great also to get this type of game in before we enter ACC play. They’re going to show you all your weaknesses. They’re going to exploit everything you need to get better at. So that’s the way we’ve got to look at it, go down there and measure yourself, see where you are against one of the best teams in the country.”

As attractive as the matchup is, it wasn’t originally in either team’s plans when their 2020-21 schedules were first arranged.

It only came about after the Wolfpack lost games from the canceled preseason NIT and a planned trip to the Bahamas. In need of a challenging nonconference test to help prepare his team for a grueling ACC schedule, Moore put in a call to Staley, whose team was also looking to fill holes in a schedule ravaged by COVID-19.

The result was a home-and-home series that will also see South Carolina travel to Raleigh next season.

“It just made for a perfect fit,” Moore said. “South Carolina has trouble finding games now because, let’s face it, nobody wants to play them. So they were eager to play.”

No one is more eager for the matchup than Cunane.

The 6-foot-5 junior will be matched against the Gamecocks’ equally tall Aliyah Boston, last season’s national Freshman of the Year and, like Cunane, a leading candidate for this year’s Lisa Leslie Award as the best center in women’s college basketball.

“I’ve seen a lot from her on film. She’s a great player,” Cunane said. “Her teammates do a great job of getting the ball into her, and she does a great job of quick turnaround moves, running the floor. She has a nice little shot in the paint, as well as getting offensive rebounds. It’s definitely going to be a big task guarding her. But it’s going to be a team effort as well.”

The fact that the Wolfpack have plenty of other options besides Cunane — on both ends of the court — is one of the team’s strengths.

Six players — Cunane, seniors Kai Crutchfield and Kayla Jones, sophomores Jakia Brown-Turner and Jada Boyd, and graduate transfer Raina Perez — have scored in double figures over the season’s first two games while a different player has led the team in scoring, rebounding and assists in both of the wins.

“With us competing in practice, that definitely helps us score against great defenders regardless of who we play,” said Crutchfield, who scored a team-high 21 points in the opener against North Florida and then led the way with six assists against NC Central. “It’s just good to know that if you make that one extra pass, you have that confidence in your teammate that they’re going to knock it down.”