‘Sixth starter’ Boyd, big third quarter propel State women into Sweet 16

The top-seeded Wolfpack overcame the absence of injured forward Kayla Jones and a halftime deficit to beat South Florida 79-67

South Florida 's Kristyna Brabencova (22) and Bethy Mununga, right, fight for a loose ball with NC State's Elissa Cunane during Tuesday's NCAA Tournament game in San Antonio (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

NC State women’s basketball coach Wes Moore likes to say that his team has six starters.

Tuesday, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament’s Mercado Region in San Antonio, the top-seeded Wolfpack only needed five.

ACC Sixth Player of the Year Jada Boyd stepped into a starting role with teammate Kayla Jones sidelined with a knee injury and responded with a double-double to lead State to a 79-67 win against eighth-seeded South Florida at the Alamodome.

Boyd finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds while four other starters scored in double figures to earn the Wolfpack a third straight trip to the Sweet 16 next week against fourth-seeded Indiana.

“We’re very blessed and fortunate to have Jada Boyd,” Moore said on a Zoom conference after the game. “I’ve always said all year long we’ve got six starters, so with Kayla Jones out, Jada Boyd steps right in.

“It does hurt us a little bit depth-wise (because) K.J. does so many things that it’s hard to replace that. But I can’t think of anybody I’d rather have coming in and filling in like that than Jada Boyd.”

With Jones out and the American Athletic Conference champion Bulls bothering All-American center Elissa Cunane into a 3-of-15 shooting performance with their physical play inside, Boyd took matters into her own hands by attacking the basket early.

Combining with fellow sophomore Jakia Brown-Turner to score 21 of their team’s 35 first-half points, they helped State survive a barrage of six USF 3-pointers to stay within one at the intermission.

Brown-Turner had 13 of her game-high 19 points in the first two quarters before fellow starters Kai Crutchfield, Raina Perez and Cunane — who still ended up with a 12-point, 11-rebound double-double — heated up to help the Wolfpack pull away.

Perez, the hero of State’s ACC Tournament championship win, contributed 12 points, while Crutchfield, who was 3 of 3 from beyond the 3-point arc to go along with six assists and only one turnover, scored 11. 

Just as it did in its opening-round victory against NC A&T, State (22-2) did most of its damage in the third quarter by outscoring its opponent 24-11, including a run of 12 straight points over a decisive four-minute stretch.

“We did a good job of defending it with some urgency and then finishing it with a boxout for the most part in (the) third,” Moore said. “We got in a little bit of a rhythm offensively. 

“It’s good when you can see the ball go through the net. That also helps you on the other end of the floor. We seem to play better defense when we’re knocking down shots. I hate that it’s that way, but that’s the way it usually rolls.”

State’s offensive balance wasn’t limited to the stat sheet. It also did a good job of scoring in different ways.

Despite Cunane’s shooting woes, the Wolfpack continued to pound the ball inside. That led to 30 points in the paint and a steady procession to the free-throw line — where it fouled out two of USF’s three bigs and outscored the Bulls 23-12.

State also had a strong perimeter threat by hitting 6 of 14 from beyond the arc.

The Bulls meanwhile, cooled off considerably after hitting six treys in the first half. They made only three more the rest of the game, finishing 9 of 28. Elena Tsineke led USF (19-4) with 22 points.

“We just had to lock in on defense,” Brown-Turner said of the adjustments that helped limit the Bull’s 3-point success. “It was definitely staying close to our man and just chasing them off the staggers that were happening. Just staying close and being on edge and getting to the shooters.”

The Wolfpack is now the only team from North Carolina still alive in either the men’s or women’s NCAA Tournament.

In order to continue the run all the way to the Final Four, Brown-Turner said that she and her teammates need to pay more attention to boxing out and get off to better starts. It would also help to get Jones, a player Moore called the team’s Swiss Army knife, back on the court.

Moore isn’t sure how long the senior forward will be sidelined, but he’s hopeful for a return sooner rather than later.

“We really miss her,” the State coach said. “Fortunately, we were able to get through today without her. A lot of it’s just going to depend on the pain and how intense it is. It’s a patella tendon injury. Hopefully she’ll improve in the next few days and we can get her back out there.”