Despite loss, Wes Moore looks to make Wolfpack elite

NC State lost in the Sweet 16 for the third straight time, but its coach still believes he can get his team over the hump

Coach Wes Moore has rebuilt the Wolfpack into national contenders, but NC State is still looking to break through into women's basketball's upper echelon. (Ethan Hyman / The News & Observer via AP)

One of Wes Moore’s vices, as his players will attest, is his affinity for drinking tea.

“Unsweet,” he said last week as he held up a large cup in response to a question on a Zoom conference.

Unfortunately for the NC State women’s basketball coach and his team, his history in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 16 is similar to the way he takes his preferred beverage.

When his Wolfpack were beaten by Indiana in the semifinals of the Mercado Region on Sunday, it marked the third straight postseason in which they were eliminated in the not-so-Sweet 16.

This one was especially painful since State was the region’s No. 1 seed and a favorite to get to the Final Four for only the second time in school history.

The disappointment was etched on Moore’s face as he met with the media following the 73-70 loss in San Antonio. But even as the reality of the situation began to set in, he was already looking ahead to his next chance at breaking the pattern.

“We’re going to get over the hump. We’ve got to get over the hump,” Moore said. “We’ve got to keep putting ourselves in this position, then hopefully close the deal and take advantage of it.”

Moore has made steady progress during his eight seasons with the Wolfpack, improving from 18-15 and a ninth-place finish in the ACC in 2015 to back-to-back conference tournament championships and the current streak of three straight Sweet 16s.

This year’s team, which finished 22-3, added to the list of accomplishments by beating two top-ranked teams on the road during the regular season before earning a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed.

The elite of women’s college basketball is an exclusive club, however, and the Wolfpack has learned entry isn’t easily attained.

That’s what motivates Moore to keep trying to crash the party. It’s a goal he began chasing even before he took the State job.

It’s the reason he took the job in the first place after 358 wins, 12 Southern Conference regular season titles and nine NCAA Tournament berths in 15 seasons at Chattanooga.

“At NC State, we have all the resources we need to recruit some of the best players in the country and compete at the highest level,” Moore said. “I loved my 15 years at UT-Chattanooga, but I think you always knew that there was going to be a little bit of a ceiling once you reached a certain point. Here there’s no ceiling, but it’s tough.”

A 63-year-old Texan with a self-deprecating sense of humor and a Southern drawl syrupy enough to sweeten a gallon of his favorite drink, Moore jokes that he chose State only because “they offered me the job.”

But having spent two seasons earlier in his career as an assistant to Hall of Famer Kay Yow, he knew of both the challenges and potential of a Wolfpack program that had regressed into mediocrity under Yow’s successor, Kellie Harper.

As much as that connection to Yow may have helped steer Moore to State, it had surprisingly little to do with his getting the job — even though Kay’s sister Debbie was the one doing the hiring.

“I had never met him,” the Wolfpack’s athletic director emeritus said.

That unfamiliarity wasn’t the only thing Moore had going against him.

“I had gone into the search thinking I needed to hire a female because I’d hired a male for swimming and women’s tennis and I was used to hiring women,” Yow said. “It just worked out that at NC State, these amazingly talented men kept popping up and showing interest in our jobs.”

To say that Moore hit his interview out of the park would be a little like saying that State’s 6-foot-5 All-American center Elissa Cunane is tall.

The clincher came when he turned the tables on Yow by putting her on the spot.

“We took him to dinner, and at the end of dinner, Wes turned to me and said, ‘So are you going to hire me or not?’” Yow recalled. “I’d never had anybody ask me that in an interview. He said he figured we’d talked enough for me to know whether or not I was going to hire him.

“I told him, ‘You just got here today and there are other people you have to meet, let’s just let this play out.’ Obviously, we knew it was going well and we really liked him.”

Although Yow and others in State’s athletic administration knew they’d made the right choice, they were also aware that it was going to take time for Moore — or anyone who had gotten the job — to bring the once-proud program back to prominence.

The turning point came in 2016 when a massive $35 million renovation was completed, transforming historic Reynolds Coliseum from an antiquated barn into a state-of-the-art showplace that finally helped Moore recruit top talent to the Wolfpack.

“You bring a 17-year-old into Reynolds before it was renovated and you talk about (the men’s national championships) in ’72 and ’83, we might as well have been talking about pre-World War II to them,” Yow said. “He was doing the best he could with what he had before the renovation, and he struggled.

“But he stuck around, hired the right people as assistant coaches, we got the renovation done and it started happening.”

The updated arena is only part of the reason for Moore’s success in recruiting players the stature of WNBA draft pick Kiara Leslie, 2020 ACC Tournament MVP Aislinn Konig and current team members Kayla Jones, Kai Crutchfield, Jakia Brown-Turner, Jada Boyd and Cunane.

“He’s just a great leader for us on and off the court,” Cunane said. “He really just molds us into the players and people that he wants us to be. I think he knows the sky’s the limit.

“In practice he says, ‘If it’s not perfect, it’s not right,’ which is a crazy standard. But it’s his standard. He doesn’t let us settle at all. We haven’t ever been complacent about where we’re at because Coach Moore is always pushing us to do every little thing right. I’m super thankful for that.”

While Moore is quick to deflect the credit for all he’s accomplished to his players, he has also begun to gain some personal recognition of his own.

Last week, he was named the winner of this year’s Pat Summitt Trophy as the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s national Coach of the Year.

“There’s such a great legacy here with Kay and all that she did with the great players that came through here, and Wes has rebuilt it the right way,” current State AD Boo Corrigan said. “It’s not easy to win, but he’s been methodical in his approach and he’s got a special group of young ladies.

“You look at him and you think, ‘How’s he doing this?’ He’s a guy from Texas who’s in North Carolina and has that ‘aw shucks’ (vibe) about him. He didn’t really get his chance until late in his career, and he’s absolutely maximized it.”

Not quite.

Going by Moore’s standard of “if it’s not perfect, it’s not right,” there are still a few humps left for the Wolfpack to get over.