The upset alerts started going out when top-seeded NC State fell behind No. 16 NC A&T by six points late in the first half of their first round NCAA women’s basketball tournament game Sunday.
But Jada Boyd knew it was only a matter of time before the Wolfpack settled in and took care of business.
As if right on cue, Boyd and her teammates ran off the final 13 points of the half to restore order, then carried the momentum through the second half to pull away for a 79-58 victory in San Marcos, Tex., to advance to the second round of the Mercado Region.
The Wolfpack will play either eighth-seeded South Florida at 3 p.m. on Tuesday. The Bulls were a 57-53 winner against Washington State in the opening round.
“I always have faith that our team is going to come together and get it together,” said Boyd, a sophomore wing who came off the bench to lead State with 18 points on 8 of 11 shooting.
The Wolfpack’s slow start wasn’t all that unexpected considering that it was playing for the first time in two weeks since beating Louisville for the ACC Tournament championship and was matched up against an A&T team that came into the game ranked No. 3 in the nation in field goal defense.
As tricky as the Aggies’ zone might be, State’s early problems were the result of breakdowns in its own defense.
“A&T, they came out hitting all their shots,” Boyd said. “Two weeks is a long time to go without playing a game so coming in and just playing a game, it was difficult.”
Led by Georgia Tech grad transfer Chanin Scott, who finished with 23 points, A&T shot 60% from the floor during the first 15 minutes and led 37-31 after scoring nine unanswered points.
But that’s when the Wolfpack (21-2) finally buckled down and began imposing its will on its in-state rival.
Not only did State finish the half strong to take a 44-37 lead — with the help of a big 3-point basket by seldom used reserve Genesis Bryant — it started the second half even stronger.
The Wolfpack scored the first six points of the third quarter to extend its run to 19-0, holding A&T (14-3) without a field goal for seven minutes in the process.
“Personally, I’d rather have jumped out early to start the game and been clicking and firing on all cylinders,” State coach Wes Moore said. “We didn’t particularly look like a No. 1 seed or any of that in that first half. So hopefully it was just a situation where maybe we’ve been off so long, and maybe this will help us knock off a little bit of the rust.”
Besides Boyd, three other Wolfpack players scored in double figures. Kai Crutchfield finished with 14 points, going 4 of 5 from 3-point range, Cunane added 12 points while Jakia Brown-Turner turned in a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double despite being saddled with early foul trouble.
In addition to her work on the offensive end, Crutchfield also did strong work on the defensive by holding Deja Winters, the Aggies’ leading scorer at 14.9 points per game and the hero of their MEAC title game win against Howard, without a field goal.
Winters missed all seven of her shots from the floor, finally breaking through with a pair of free throws long after the issue was decided.
“What I talked to our young women about in regards to teams like NC State, we haven’t played a team like that all this year, is that they take away your first option,” A&T coach Tarrell Robinson said. “You may have scored off of them, but the next possession it’s not going to be there.”
State broke the game open early enough that Moore was able to rest his starters and substitute liberally throughout the final period.
Besides Bryant, who scored nine points and had three assists in just her 12th game this season, other deep reserves Dontavia Waggoner, Rebecca Demke and Elle Sutphin all got extended playing time in their NCAA Tournament debuts.
“It gives us some confidence moving forward in being able to go a little bit deeper on our bench and feeling comfortable with it,” Moore said. “It was good to see, obviously.”
The only thing that kept it from being the ideal opening-round scenario was an injury to starting forward Kayla Jones.
The 6-foot-1 senior left the game in the second quarter with a knee issue and didn’t return. According to Moore, her status for Tuesday’s second-round game is up in the air.
“We’ve got a doctor traveling with us, and they said they’ll probably get an MRI tonight and see what it is, what’s going on in there,” the Wolfpack coach said. “We don’t think it’s an ACL or anything like that, but obviously it’s really tender. Hopefully we can get some ice on it and she’ll feel better. Obviously she’s a big part of what we do and a great leader for us.”