GREENSBORO — NC State coach Wes Moore has said that as defending champion, his veteran team has an advantage at this year’s ACC women’s basketball tournament because of the experience it gained on the way to cutting down the nets.
“We won it a year ago,” he said. “So now we know we can do it.”
That knowledge and the confidence that comes with paid dividends on Saturday.
Instead of panicking when it fell behind by 10 early in the fourth quarter of its semifinal matchup against No. 3 Georgia Tech, the second-seeded Wolfpack turned up its intensity and battled back for a 66-61 victory at Greensboro Coliseum.
The win advances State into Sunday’s noon final against top-seeded Louisville, where it will attempt to earn its second straight tournament title and a possible No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed.
“We just had to be level-headed,” said junior center Elissa Cunane, who for the second straight game led the way with 23 points and nine rebounds. “We’ve been on this court before. We know what it’s like to be down and come back. We’ve had to do it a couple times throughout the season.
“We just really had to have confidence in ourselves. Nobody wavered, nobody held their head low. We just had to keep each other’s backs, find energy in the little things and execute. We knew we could play, we knew we could win, so we just had to go out there and give it our all.”
The Wolfpack (19-2) was in desperate need of a boost after being outplayed and outworked for the better part of the first three quarters by the physical Yellow Jackets (15-8).
And it was one of the team’s most experienced players that provided it.
With her team trailing 53-43 and reeling after a 3-pointer by Tech’s Loyal McQueen with 8:51 remaining, senior guard Kai Crutchfield took it upon herself to attack the basket along the right baseline. Her basket and additional free throw didn’t just cut the deficit back to single digits, it kickstarted a comeback that saw State outscore its opponent 23-8 the rest of the way.
“That was the turning point in the game,” Cunane said.
Crutchfield lived up to her nickname “Kai Clutchfield” by scoring eight of 10 points over the decisive final 10 minutes. Twice she made key baskets, once after her own offensive rebound, to bring State back to within one before Cunane — who scored her team’s final eight points — got the go-ahead score with 2:28 left.
Her defense on Tech’s Lotta-Maj Lahtinen also figured prominently in the Wolfpack’s ability to survive and advance.
Lahtinen scored 13 points in the first half before the switch to put Crutchfield on her was made. She scored only four more from that point on to tie teammate Lorela Cubaj for the team lead with 17 points.
“Of course we were down, so we needed something to spark our mojo,” Crutchfield said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it was something I needed to do like physically in a way. I think we just needed some type of energy to spark us.”
Moore is hoping that spark will carry over into Sunday’s championship matchup with Louisville, which beat shorthanded Syracuse 72-59 in the other semifinal.
State has yet to play its best basketball in this tournament, especially from long distance. The Wolfpack is just 10 of 38 from 3-point range in its first two games.
Kayla Jones, Jakia Brown-Turner and Raina Perez, in particular, have yet to find their range — although Jones and Brown-Turner scored 12 and 10 points, respectively, on Saturday and Perez contributed five assists with only one turnover.
State won the only regular season meeting with the Cardinals 74-60 on Feb. 1.
“Louisville is a great team, and I know we’re going to definitely get their ‘A’ game,” said Moore, whose team beat Virginia Tech in its tournament opener Thursday. “I know they’re excited about getting another opportunity to play us, and we’re going to, quite honestly, have to play better than we’ve played in these first two games. We found a way to win, but I wouldn’t say we’re clicking by any means.
“We’re going to have to match their intensity and we’re going to have to execute a little bit better offensively and hopefully shoot the ball a little bit better because Louisville is going to score points. It’s going to be a great game. I just hope we come out and play well. If we do that, it’ll be a good day.”
Louisville 72, Syracuse 59
Two-time ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans scored 13 points, Olivia Cochran added 10 points and 10 rebounds and four Cardinals finished in double digits in scoring as Louisville advanced to Sunday’s final behind a balanced attack.
Louisville (23-2), the tournament’s top seed, got 11 points from Kianna Smith on 5-of-7 shooting and 10 points off the bench from Norika Konno in the win. The Cardinals were 16 of 17 from the free throw line.