RALEIGH — The NC State women’s basketball team may have returned all five starters from last year’s ACC Tournament championship team, but it wasn’t the same Wolfpack that began the new season against South Carolina on Tuesday.
In more ways than one.
Coach Wes Moore’s team was without starting forward Jada Boyd, who is still recovering from a wrist injury, while fellow frontcourt mainstay Kayla Jones was limited to 19 tentative minutes as she continues to work her way back from offseason knee surgery.
All-American center Elissa Cunane, meanwhile, was a mere shadow of herself, scoring just eight points on 4-of-11 shooting while being continually frustrated by a massive Gamecocks frontcourt.
It was a combination that sent the fifth-ranked Wolfpack to a 66-57 defeat at the hands of the nation’s No. 1 team before a raucous sellout crowd on opening night at Reynolds Coliseum.
“We’re still a work in progress,” State coach Wes Moore said. “We added some talent, K.J. is still coming off surgery … probably not a great night to play the No. 1 team in the country. We were excited about the opportunity, it was a great atmosphere. We’ve just got to get better.”
The Gamecocks took advantage of that need for improvement by jumping out to a quick 6-0 lead — aggressively attacking the basket on one end of the court and surrounding the rim in general and Cunane in particular with a rotating pair of imposing bigs.
And they didn’t let up as the game wore on. South Carolina blocked nine shots in all, five by the 6-foot-5 Aliyah Boston.
On those occasions when Boston and her teammates — 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso, 6-foot-4 Laeticia Amihere and 6-foot-2 Victaria Saxton — weren’t swatting the ball back at Wolfpack shooters, their imposing presence served as enough of a deterrent to take State completely out of its offensive rhythm for long stretches at a time.
The Wolfpack went 3 of 12 as a team from beyond the 3-point line and shot just 38.5% overall.
“They defensively took us out of anything,” Moore said. “We looked very lost out there most of the night. When you were able to maybe come off the pick on the ball or get a step on somebody, you had 6-5, 6-6 waiting in there and doing a good job of, if not blocking it, but altering shots.
“I thought they were the aggressors. Maybe because of that defense, we ended up settling too much for jump shots and step-backs.”
Even with its offensive woes, State was able to stay within striking distance thanks to its own defense — which forced South Carolina into 12 first-half turnovers — and the scoring of Raina Perez.
The star of last season’s upset of the similarly top-ranked Gamecocks in Columbia, the senior point guard scored nine of her team’s first 11 points. With Jakia Brown-Turner also heating up in the second quarter, the Wolfpack figured to be in good shape down by only those original six points after 20 minutes of play.
But while it was able to ignite the crowd by climbing to within one on three consecutive possessions midway through the third quarter, including once on Cunane’s first basket of the game, State was never able to come all the way back.
It scored just once during the final 3½ minutes of the period, allowing the Gamecocks to run off eight unanswered points to end all realistic hopes of a comeback.
“I think we kind of beat ourselves,” said Perez, who tied Brown-Turner for high-scoring honors with 18 points. “It’s not that we ran out of gas, we just weren’t executing offensively, and we need to do that in order to get over that hump.”
Between them, Perez, Brown-Turner and Jones, who finished with seven points, were 17 of 28 from the floor. Everyone else combined to make only 7 of 31 attempts.
Among those that struggled the most were heralded transfer Diamond Johnson, who was 2 of 12 (0 for 6 on 3-pointers), and Cunane. The 6-foot-5 junior was visibly frustrated by her inability to get open looks at the basket — and her inability to get her shots to fall on those rare occasions when she was able to get them off.
“We wanted her to work as hard as she could,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said of her team’s defense on Cunane. “We wanted to give her different looks. It’s really only one of her and four of us, so we really just tried to wear her down.”
Despite the disappointing start to the season, Staley’s counterpart said his team will be better for having played such a challenging opening opponent.
“We’re trying to break through,” Moore said. “We’re trying to get into that elite level, and to do that you’ve got to play the top teams. Obviously, we went down there and won a year ago, so you still felt like we can get it done, especially on our homecourt. But tip your hat to them. They came in here and took it to us.”