‘You’ve got to beat the best’: Pack women top No. 1 Louisville

For the second time this season, the Wolfpack went on the road and defeated the nation’s top‑ranked team

Jakia Brown-Turner was one of three NC State players to score 16 points against No. 1 Louisville, contributing to a balanced attack that helped the Wolfpack defeat the nation’s top-ranked team for the second time this season. (Photo courtesy of NC State Athletics)

Wes Moore didn’t hesitate last week when asked if he thought ACC rival Louisville deserved its ranking as the No. 1 women’s basketball team in the country.

Absolutely, he said.

The NC State coach was much less decisive Monday when asked the same question, this time about his own team, after the No. 4 Wolfpack knocked off the Cardinals 74‑60 for its second win this season against a top-ranked opponent.

“I’ll leave that up to other people,” said Moore, whose team also upset then-No. 1 South Carolina in Columbia on Dec. 6. “We’ve just got to make sure we continue to get better.”

While it’s yet to be seen if State can leapfrog Louisville, South Carolina and UConn into the top spot of next week’s poll, the defending ACC Tournament champions presented a strong case to the voters with its dominant performance at KFC Yum! Center.

Playing at full strength for the first time in nearly a month thanks to the return of All-American center Elissa Cunane, the Wolfpack slowed the usually fast-paced Cardinals by holding them to just seven fast-break points and pounded out a 44-29 rebounding advantage before sealing the deal with a big fourth quarter.

State (12-1, 7-1 ACC) outscored Louisville 25-16 over the final 10 minutes to pull away for its first victory against the Cardinals since Feb. 2, 2017.

Four Wolfpack players — Cunane, Jakia Brown-Turner, Jada Boyd and Raina Perez —scored 15 or more points to pace a balanced attack that also included a 13-rebound effort by Kayla Jones.

The most impressive aspect of State’s performance, however, is that it came just a week after the team resumed its season following a lengthy COVID-19-related pause and four days after suffering its first loss in an overtime setback at Virginia Tech.

“I was concerned coming into this game because I felt like we looked tired, we looked sluggish after the layoff,” Moore said. “We needed to get our mojo back, and (Monday) I thought we did that.”

While Moore had reason to be nervous about his team’s physical condition as it played its way back into shape following a nearly two-week break, he need not have worried about its mental state following the loss in Blacksburg.

“Right after the game, obviously we were all kind of sad,” said Cunane, who made the trip but didn’t play. “On the bus ride back, we’re like, ‘This isn’t the end of the season. It’s so early.’

“Our momentum just really changed right there. We knew that we were going to come out and that we had a great game against Louisville coming up. We just had to do what we know how to do to be ready for that game.”

The most tangible reason for State’s optimism was the return of Cunane, who leads the team in scoring and blocked shots while ranking second in rebounds.

Although her replacement, Camille Hobby, played well filling in while the 6-foot-5 junior recovered from the lingering effects of COVID-19, the Wolfpack was a different team with Cunane back in the lineup.

Although it took her a while to get back into a rhythm, Cunane got stronger as the game went on, scoring 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting in 30 minutes of action.

“The first half, I came out and I was feeling it a little bit, but as soon as the game got going I was good,” Cunane said. “In the second quarter, I had my energy up and I was just ready. It was good for the rest of the game. The first quarter hit me a little bit, but now we’re good.”

Even before she began to heat up, Cunane’s presence on the court made a positive impact, both in the confidence she gave the Wolfpack and the space she helped create for others — especially point guard Perez.

The graduate transfer from Cal State Fullerton carried State’s offense early by scoring eight of her 15 points in the first quarter while also leading a defensive effort that limited Louisville (16-1, 9-1) to 38.3% shooting.

“That’s why I came here to NC State, to play in these big games, to compete against the best,” Perez, last season’s Big West Conference Player of the Year, said. “If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. They were No. 1, so we did what we had to do.”

State joins Maryland in 2005-06 and Stanford in 2007-08 as the only teams in the past 20 years to score multiple wins against top-ranked opponents. Both of those teams made it to the Final Four, with the Terrapins winning the national championship.

As giddy as Perez and her teammates were about joining that exclusive club, they won’t have much time to enjoy the victory.

With another emotional game coming up Sunday in Chapel Hill against rival North Carolina, Moore said that his “biggest concern is that we don’t stall out” with a month still to go before it gets the chance to make a legitimate run at its own national championship.

“The great teams that we’re trying to associate with at this point, they’re going to be better in March than we are right now,” he said. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re doing the same thing.”

His point guard said he need not worry.

“If we just keep doing what we’re doing, we can go pretty far,” Perez said. “We can go as far as we want. Beating another No. 1 team just motivates us, and I’m excited to see where we can take this.”