Even as a No. 1 seed, State women still fighting for respect

The Wolfpack will start its NCAA tournament run Sunday afternoon with a game against in-state opponent NC A&T

Elissa Cunane looks to shoot against Louisville during NC State's victory in the ACC Tournament championship game (AP Photo/Ben McKeown)

NC State got some well-deserved respect from the women’s college basketball establishment — albeit begrudgingly — when it was chosen as a No. 1 seed to the NCAA tournament last week.

That doesn’t mean the Wolfpack has been fully accepted as a member of the sport’s elite.

“There was an ESPN article the other day that had the top five teams that could win the tournament and NC State wasn’t on that list even though we’re a one seed,” All-American center Elissa Cunane said during a Zoom conference on Friday. “Even though we got the respect we deserve as a No. 1 seed, we still have a far ways to go.”

The good thing for coach Wes Moore and his two-time ACC tournament champions is that regardless of what the Worldwide Leader or anyone else says or thinks, they will be the ones that determine how serious of a run they make toward the title.

And as the Wolfpack has shown in beating two top-ranked teams during the regular season before rallying down the stretch to beat Louisville for the conference crown, it has the talent, experience and versatility — let alone the motivation — to go the distance.

 It’s a journey set to begin Sunday at 4 p.m. with a first-round game against 16th-seeded NC A&T in San Antonio. The winner advances to a second round date against either No. 8 South Florida or No. 9 Washington State.

“You have to have that confidence in yourself and we know we’re here to compete with the best teams,” said senior forward Kayla Jones, one of four State players averaging double-figure scoring and the team’s second-leading rebounder behind Cunane. “We’re ready. We know it’s not going to be easy, but we’re just taking it one game at a time and focusing on us.”

If Jones sounds anxious to get onto the court and play, there’s a good reason. 

By the time State tips off against A&T, it will have gone exactly two weeks since its last game. The players have been in San Antonio since Tuesday, quarantining to gain entry into the NCAA’s tournament bubble.

Other than practice, they’ve done little other than eating, sleeping, reading, playing video games, catching up on schoolwork and getting tested for COVID as they bide their time until Sunday.

“I’ve kind of lost track of the days,” Cunane said. “Now I know it’s like two days until game time. As soon as we got back to practice, it kind of got our mindset back. Now I just have a lot of pent up energy. I can’t wait to get out.”

According to point guard Raina Perez, the long break may actually help the Wolfpack’s preparation since it has given her and her teammates plenty of time to come down from their ACC tournament celebration.

“We’ve just started this whole tournament like it’s a new season,” said the graduate transfer, whose jumper in the final seconds provided the winning points against Louisville. “That’s just how we’ve been going about things.”

In fact, coach Wes Moore may have been more demanding on his team over the two weeks since its last game than he has all season.

“In practice, we’re just trying to build good habits,” Jones said. “After the ACC Tournament we had a couple days off. Once we got back to Reynolds (Coliseum) and started practicing, you could tell Coach Moore was one us. 

“We had to start correcting things to become a better team. March is here. Now we’re just trying to show that improvement.”