Cunane, Wolfpack advance, Deacons fall at ACC women’s tourney

Elissa Cunane, who missed a regular season loss at Virginia Tech, scored 27 points to lead NC State past the Hokies while Wake Forest ran out of gas in its upset bid against Louisville

N.C. State's Elissa Cunane drives around Virginia Tech's Elizabeth Kitley during the Wolfpack's ACC women's basketball quarterfinal win at Greensboro Coliseum on Friday (Ethan Hyman/ACC pool photo)

GREENSBORO — NC State’s third-ranked women’s basketball team was left to wonder what if after losing in overtime at Virginia Tech last month without star center Elissa Cunane, who was still recovering from a case of COVID-19.

The Wolfpack no longer has to wonder.

With a healthy Cunane in the lineup, it avenged one of the two blemishes on its regular season resume Friday with a 68-55 victory against the Hokies in the ACC women’s tournament quarterfinals at Greensboro Coliseum.

The 6-foot-5 junior from nearby Summerfield scored a season-high 27 points while pulling down a game-high nine rebounds in helping her second-seeded team take its first step toward defending the tournament championship it won on this same floor a year ago.

The win sends State into Saturday’s semifinals against No. 3 Georgia Tech.

“Elissa Cunane, she makes a big difference,” Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said of his Lisa Leslie Award finalist, “so having her in this game obviously was really, really a big part of it.”

As big of a factor as Cunane was, it took awhile for her teammates to start feeding her the ball so she could go to work against her longtime friend Elizabeth Kitley.

State (18-2) attempted nine 3-pointers in the first quarter, missing all but two, while allowing the seventh-seeded Hokies to battle to a 16-16 standoff. 

It took a stern reminder from Moore in the huddle between quarters for the Wolfpack to finally get the message. And get the ball inside.

The result was a 10-point advantage — aided by a late 7-0 run — that helped State build a 33-23 lead by the halftime break.

“You’ve got Elissa Cunane who’s pretty doggone good down there on the block. If you’re going to Vegas, you’re going to play the odds. The kid shoots over 60% from the field. Get her touches, get her the ball,” Moore said. “We just came down and settled for threes and shot early in the clock. I was a little disappointed in the way we played from that perspective. We’ve got to work inside out.”

State finished the game just 4 of 22 from beyond the arc and was nearly as cold from the free-throw line, going 12 of 19.

But Cunane made up the difference by taking the ball aggressively to the rim at every opportunity and going 10 of 15 from the floor and 7 of 8 from the line. The Wolfpack star punctuated her standout night with a fallaway jumper at the shot clock buzzer in the final seconds that served as an exclamation point for a performance that clearly meant a lot to her.

And not just because it came against Kitley, the daughter of former Wake Forest center Ralph Kitley who led the Hokies (14-9) with 20 points.

“Yeah, there was definitely a lot to play for today,” Cunane said. “I had some time to make up after not playing Virginia Tech the first two times this season, and we’re on a bigger stage now. It’s tournament time. One loss and you’re out, so we really have all notches turned up, offensive and defense. We’re coming out here because we’ve got business to do.”

Other than Cunane and sophomore wing Jada Boyd, the ACC’s Sixth Player of the Year who came off the bench to post a 13-point, 10-rebound double-double, Moore is hoping his team goes about its business with a little more polish as it advances deeper into the tournament.

“I’ve got great respect for Virginia Tech, their offensive weapons and Coach (Kenny) Brooks, so I was scared of this game,” the Wolfpack coach said. “It’s good to have it under your belt.

“People ask, ‘Do you have pressure on you because you won it a year ago?’ I look at it the other way. We won it a year ago, so now we know we can do it. We know our process, our preparation works and so hopefully that gives us a little bit of an edge from that standpoint. Hopefully we can get the momentum going.”

Louisville 65, Wake Forest 53

The ninth-seeded Deacons had the top-seeded and fifth-ranked Cardinals on the ropes, tied at 44-all after three quarters on a day in which ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans scored only eight points while going 3 of 15 from the floor.

But Louisville (22-2) got a lift from freshman Hailey Van Lith, who keyed a 13-0 run early in the fourth quarter to break the game open and leave Wake’s NCAA Tournament hopes in the hands of the selection committee.

Van Lith finished with 24 points, including six 3-pointers, to help rescue the Cardinals and send them into Saturday’s semifinal against fifth-seeded Syracuse.

“My heart is breaking for them because we came out, we fought hard, we gave them everything we could and I think going into the fourth quarter, tie ball game against them on the second day of legs, I thought we just fought hard,” Wake coach Jen Hoover said afterward.

“The ball didn’t bounce our way a couple times and there’s such a small error of margin against the top-10 teams in the country. I think we came in and we knew our game plan, we paid attention to it, and we just couldn’t knock down some of those shots we needed to fall.”

The Deacons (12-12) earned their shot at the Cardinals by beating North Carolina in their opening round game on Thursday. 

They went 10 of 17 from 3-point range in that game with freshman Jewel Spear making a career-high seven of them. Against Louisville, however, they were just 3 of 18 from beyond the arc while shooting a frigid 30.8% overall.

Spear finished with 12 points, one of three Wake players in double figures, but she made only two of her 3-point attempts.

“I think they definitely recognized Jewel more because of the UNC game,” senior point guard Gina Conti said. “I just think it opened up more for the other players on our team and Jewel was able to get the ball, still find her shot and also look inside.”

Once inside, the duo of Ivana Raca and Christina Morra combined to keep the Deacons in the game by scoring 13 and 11 points, respectively.

But a disparity at the free-throw line — Louisville outscored Wake 18-0 — and a fourth quarter cold snap ended up costing the Deacons the game.

Despite the loss and the .500 record, Hoover remains confident about her team’s chances of earning its first NCAA bid since 1988.

“I think we do have a lot of basketball still left to play,” she said. “I’m convinced we do. I hope others are. I think as well as we played against (Louisville) twice this year, too, proves that we deserve it.”

Syracuse 68, Florida State 67

Kamilla Cardoso scored on a putback at the horn to help Syracuse beat Florida State 68-67 in Friday’s quarterfinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Cardoso was alone on the left of the lane as teammate Kiara Lewis airballed a desperation 3-pointer from the right wing. Cardoso caught the ball and quickly put it back up to beat the horn, with teammates mobbing her under the basket.

“She (Cardoso) had every reason to say, ‘She (Lewis) missed the shot, game’s over,’ and she just stayed with it, got the rebound, had the wherewithal to put the ball back up on the glass,” Syracuse coach Quintin Hillsman said.

That marked the first lead of the day for the fifth-seeded Orange (14-7), who trailed by 15 points in the first half. The game also included Syracuse scoring to beat the third-quarter buzzer as Emily Engstler hit a running heave from a step shy of halfcourt to cut FSU’s lead to 55-52.

The Orange will take on No.-5 ranked and top-seeded Louisville in a semifinal.

Georgia Tech 60, Clemson 57

The third-seeded Yellow Jackets survived a bid by the 11th seeded Tigers for their second straight upset of the tournament when Weronika Hipp’s 3-pointer rimmed out at the buzzer. The final shot was set up by a steal from Destiny Thomas with 16 seconds remaining.

Georgia Tech (15-7) led by as many as 10 late in the third quarter before Clemson — which upset Notre Dame in the first round on Thursday — roared from behind to make it a one-possession game.

Kierra Fletcher scored 21 points and Lorela Cubaj scored 12 with 18 rebounds to lead the Yellow Jackets.  Loyal McQueen added four 3-pointers and 14 points.

Delicia Washington led Clemson (11-13) with 20 points.