NC State women can’t get over the not-so-Sweet 16 hump

The top-seeded Wolfpack was ousted in the round of 16 for the third straight NCAA Tournament as a fourth quarter rally fell short against Indiana

NC State's Raina Perez and Indiana's Nicole Cardano-Hillary battle for a loose ball during the Wolfpack's upset loss in the NCAA's Sweet 16 on Saturday. (Eric Gay / AP Photo)

The NCAA tournament’s round of 16 still isn’t very sweet for the NC State women’s basketball team.

For the third time in as many tournaments, the Wolfpack failed to get over the hump and advance to the Elite Eight.

This time, the end came with a 73-70 loss to Indiana at the Alamodome in San Antonio that was especially disappointing since this time, State was its region’s No. 1 seed.

Playing without injured All-ACC forward Kayla Jones for the second straight game, coach Wes Moore’s team couldn’t overcome 17 turnovers and a 13-point fourth quarter deficit in falling to 1-13 all-time in the Sweet 16.

“It’s like you got this far, yet you got nowhere,” said star center Elissa Cunane, who had two opportunities to tie the game in the final seconds but missed both.

“I’m proud of us for getting to the Sweet 16, but that wasn’t our goal. We knew we could go further. We were a No. 1 seed. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have won this tournament. Knowing that and knowing the expectations we set for our team and coming up short, it just kind of sucks.”  

State (22-3) got off to a strong start by scoring the game’s first seven points. Then after Indiana answered back with the next nine to take the lead, the Wolfpack ran off the next 11 points to build an eight-point advantage.

But just when it looked as if the two-time ACC Tournament champions were poised to make quick work of the fourth-seeded Hoosiers, they suddenly turned into their own worst enemy.

The combination of turnovers and an inability to keep Indiana’s Ali Patberg, Nicole Cardano-Hillary and Grace Berger from getting to the rim off dribble penetration led to a 34-33 halftime deficit — even though State shot 53.8% from the floor and had five 3-pointers to just two for the opposition.

Things got worse in the second half, as the Hoosiers (21-5) outscored the Wolfpack 24-15 in the third quarter to open up a double digit lead.

But even as the deficit continued to grow and time began to get short, State never lost faith in its ability to come back.

It had done it before, after all, twice digging itself out of deep holes late in games during its ACC Tournament title run.

“I never doubted that we could win that game until the buzzer went off,” Cunane said. “And I think the team never doubted each other. We all had each other’s backs in the huddles knowing we could come back and we’ve done it multiple times. We knew we were going to come back.”

And they did.

Trailing 70-60 when Indiana’s leading scorer Mackenzie Holmes fouled out with 3:20 left, the Wolfpack roared from behind by scoring eight straight points to narrow the gap to just two. And when the Hoosiers’ Kiandra Browne missed two free throws with 1:09 remaining, State had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead.

Only this time, the Cardiac Pack ran out of rallies.

First, Cunane missed a contested shot at the rim with 25.6 seconds remaining. Then, with State trailing by three the the clock winding down, the 6-foot-5 junior bricked a rushed jumper from the top of the circle at the end of a final possession that, according to Moore, went awry before it even began when he burned his team’s final timeout when he didn’t have to.

“I messed up and called a timeout there with about 13 seconds left, I shouldn’t have done that,” the Wolfpack coach said. “I should have saved that. We maybe would have got a little better look that last possession.”

As it is, Perez drove into the lane hoping to draw the defense to her, leaving a 3-point shooter such as Kai Crutchfield or Jada Boyd — who were a combined 5 of 5 from distance in the game — open on the perimeter.

But that didn’t happen, forcing the graduate point guard to get the ball to anyone she could for a final shot. 

That turned out to be Cunane, who finished with 15 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. But on this occasion, she didn’t have enough time to set and get a good look at the basket.

“We would have liked to probably not gotten (the ball) quite as deep as we did, maybe been able to hit Elissa a little sooner,” Moore said. “Give Indiana credit, they did a great job of defending it.

“That’s where if we’d have had a timeout, we could have advanced the ball. I’m always a big advocate of saving your timeouts, having that ability to advance it, to be able to run a set to get a three or whatever. Again, I messed up.”

In addition to Cunane, Boyd (18 points) and Perez (17) also scored in double figures for the Wolfpack. In the end though, State could have used Jones and the 12 points and seven rebounds she averaged during a season that included two wins over top-ranked opponents and another banner for the Reynolds Coliseum rafters. Instead, it ended in all-too-familiar fashion in the not-so-Sweet 16.

“But I’m proud of our players, all they’ve done this year, all they’ve gone through. I’m proud of them today, too, the way they competed and fought and got back in the game,” Moore said. “We’re going to get over the hump. We’ve got to get over the hump. So got to keep putting ourselves in this position, then hopefully close the deal and take advantage of it.”