GREENSBORO — Raina Perez was 2,500 miles away playing for Cal State Fullerton when NC State broke a 29-year drought by winning the ACC women’s basketball tournament last March.
As such, she’s one of the few current members of the Wolfpack that didn’t know what it’s like to cut down the nets as a conference champion.
Not any more.
The graduate transfer point guard took a step back from her defender and calmly sank a 17-foot jumper with 2.1 seconds remaining Sunday to give State a 58-56 victory against top-seeded Louisville and its second straight ACC Tournament title.
The victory not only earned the Wolfpack (20-2) the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but it could also have solidified a No. 1 seed for its quest for an even more prestigious prize.
“I was honestly looking for the pass,” said Perez, who was 3 for 9 from the floor and had missed her six previous field goal attempts since the second quarter. “I hadn’t made a shot all second half, so I think I was kind of in my head. But then they doubled on (tournament MVP Elissa Cunane) and I was wide open. I had to take it and, what do you know, it went in.”
Perez’s game-winner came with the score tied at 56 and provided an exclamation point to a back-and-forth final that featured 15 lead changes and four ties.
The dramatic ending was set up when State’s Kai Crutchfield, who had bothered ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans with her tight defense all game, forced the Louisville star into missing an off-balance jumper with 28 seconds remaining.
Cunane retrieved the errant shot for her ninth rebound, allowing the second-seeded Wolfpack to hold for the final possession.
The All-ACC center was State’s best player throughout the week, finishing with 20 points for the game and 70 for the tournament, and figured to be the player with the ball in her hands with the game on the line.
But when the Cardinals collapsed on her in the lane, Perez took matters into her own hands — something her coach had been imploring her to do.
“It was funny because she had about that same look a few minutes earlier and she tried to get it to Elissa, which is a good plan, but I just told her, ‘Hey, take the shot,’” coach Wes Moore said. “And she took it when it counted most. I’m just so thankful for what she’s brought to our team.”
Even after Perez’s decisive basket, State still had to get one more stop before the balloons were released from the coliseum rafters.
And predictably, Evans was the one to take it.
But with little time to set and shoot, her 3-point attempt fell short, setting off the Wolfpack’s second straight championship celebration.
Evans finished with 15 points to lead Louisville (23-3), but it took her 21 shots to do it. She made only one of her six 3-point attempts.
“Defense is what we focused in on all tournament,” Cunane said. “So to be able to get stops and push in transition, that’s been our go-to this season. It has been the key to our game.”
And yet, as was the case the entire tournament, nothing came easily for the Wolfpack.
With 8:58 remaining, State found itself in a similar hole to the one it faced a day when it trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter of its semifinal win against Georgia Tech. This time the deficit was eight at 48-40 after a 3-pointer by Evans.
State’s comeback on Saturday began on a three-point play by Crutchfield. Sunday’s rally started in similar fashion with the player her teammates call “Clutchfield” answering Evans’ basket with a 3-pointer of her own from deep in the left corner.
Cunane then took over, scoring nine of her team’s 13 points until Perez finished things off with her game-winning jumper. Kayla Jones and Jakia Brown-Turner had the other baskets on offensive rebounds.
“You know, they just step up and find a way to get it done,” Moore said. “It helps when you’ve got Elissa Cunane in there to go to and lean on, but all weekend we’ve had different players step up and make big plays. It’s more about just the heart of a champion, if you want to call it that. As Jim Valvano would say, ‘Never give up.’ … Like I said, I think they’re just winners. I think they’ve got heart.”