Wolfpack women have ‘unfinished business’

NC State eyes a national title, UNC and Wake Forest look to build on NCAA appearances, and Duke returns after opting out of last season

Elissa Cunane is one of five returning starters for NC State, which hopes to advance past the Sweet 16 this season and has its eyes set on a national championship. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

Most of the time, coaches tell their players what to do. Last spring, members of the NC State women’s basketball team turned the tables on their coach, Wes Moore.

It happened when Moore made a suggestion as he and his Wolfpack were designing the rings commemorating their second straight ACC Tournament championship.

“We talked about putting ‘Three straight Sweet 16s’ on the rings,” Moore said, “and the players said, ‘No, we don’t want to be reminded of that. That’s not a good memory.’”

The exhilaration of State’s dramatic victory against Louisville in the conference final, secured on a buzzer-beating jumper by point guard Raina Perez, quickly faded after an NCAA Tournament run that ended earlier than expected.

Moore and his top-seeded Wolfpack were left with plenty of what-ifs after an upset loss to Indiana, a game team leader Kayla Jones missed due to injury. But thanks to an NCAA ruling awarding all players an extra year of eligibility because of hardships caused by COVID-19, they’ve been given the rare opportunity at a do-over.

With all five starters back, including three “super seniors” and All-American center Elissa Cunane, State is once again among the teams to beat both in the ACC and nationally as the new season gets underway.

“I really feel like we have unfinished business,” said Jones, back in the lineup after undergoing offseason knee surgery. “Our goal is, yes, we want to win another ACC Tournament, but it’s bigger. It has to be bigger. We’re tired of just the Sweet 16. We want more. That’s what we’re preparing for every day.”

Part of that preparation is a challenging schedule that began with an opening night loss to No. 1 South Carolina at a sold-out Reynolds Coliseum on Tuesday.

The fifth-ranked Wolfpack will also face regular season tests against Florida, Kansas State and Maryland while also getting a shot at redemption against Indiana before heading into an equally difficult ACC schedule.

The conference sent eight teams into the NCAA Tournament last season, more than any other league in the country. With the return of Duke, which opted out in 2020-21, and the continued improvement of fellow in-state teams North Carolina and Wake Forest, the competition figures to be even more intense.

In anticipation of that, Moore took steps to add more depth and even more talent to an already loaded roster that also includes guard Kai Crutchfield, wing Jakia Brown-Turner and top reserve Jada Boyd, who is expected to miss the first few games while recovering from a wrist injury.

In addition to a pair of five-star freshmen — Aziaha James and Jessica Timmons — the Wolfpack also landed veteran transfers Diamond Johnson from Rutgers and Madison Hayes from Mississippi State.

Johnson, a multitalented point guard who averaged 17.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 45.5% from 3-point range as a freshman last season, gave a glimpse of her potential last week by leading the team in scoring in its exhibition win against UNC Pembroke.

“We’ve added a few good players, so it’s going to be fun trying to mesh it all together and keep everybody happy,” Moore said. “That’s going to be the next challenge.”

While the challenge for State is to stay on top, the task for coach Kara Lawson and Duke is remembering what it’s like to get back on the court after a year away.

The Blue Devils played only four games before shutting things down last December in Lawson’s interrupted first season in Durham. Since then, Lawson coached the U.S. women’s 3-on-3 team to an Olympic gold medal while completely overhauling Duke’s roster with the addition of seven Division I transfers to a core of five returners.

The group, led by Elizabeth Balogun and Nyah Green from Louisville, Celeste Taylor from Texas, and Lexi Gordon from Texas Tech, has combined for 4,223 points, 2,273 rebounds and 519 assists in a combined 477 career games before joining the Blue Devils.

“We want to be one of the best programs in the country, that’s the vision,” Lawson said. “Now we have to do the work to try and get there. We’ve made a lot of progress in terms of getting to that point. We’re not there yet, so we’ll just keep on working.”

Neighboring rival UNC is in a similar situation, though much further along in the process in its third season under coach Courtney Banghart.

For the first time in her tenure with the Tar Heels, every player on the team — including dynamic sophomore point guard Deja Kelly and four incoming freshmen — was recruited by Banghart.

“This is her program,” said junior center Malu Tshitenge. “If you look at our roster, it clearly shows her style of play. We have guards who can post up, posts who can handle the ball and shoot. That versatility and fast pace is coach’s style.”

Like UNC, Wake Forest is coming off a season in which it sneaked into the NCAA Tournament field before losing its opening-round game. And like the Tar Heels, the Deacons of coach Jen Hoover are looking to build on the momentum to accomplish bigger and better things in 2021-22.

“That was great to see our name pop up on the board,” said second-year freshman sharpshooter Jewel Spear, who tied an ACC Tournament record by making seven 3-pointers in an opening-round win against UNC that sealed Wake’s NCAA berth. “But now that we lost in the first round, we know we can go further. We have that experience, we know how to handle adversity. So I’m excited about that.”

In addition to State, UNC and Wake, two other state teams made it to the NCAA Tournament last season, MEAC champion NC A&T and High Point, which earned its automatic bid by winning the Big South Conference.