Wolfpack women battle-tested heading into conference play

NC State lost its opener to No. 1 South Carolina but beat two other top-10 opponents during an 8-1 start

The addition of Diamond Johnson to NC State's lineup has made the Wolfpack an even deeper team this season. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

’Tis the season for college coaches losing their jobs.

Several have bitten the dust already, mostly in football. But at least one prominent basketball coach, Maryland’s Mark Turgeon, has also joined the list.

To hear NC State women’s coach Wes Moore talk before the season, he was worried about becoming one of the casualties because of the nonconference gauntlet he arranged for his team to play.

“Our schedule is brutal,” he said at the ACC Tipoff in October, “so I just hope I still have a job at Christmas.”

Moore was joking about his job security, of course. But his Wolfpack’s early-season schedule really was no joke, with tests against preseason No. 1 South Carolina and fellow top-10 opponents Maryland and Indiana on the slate within the first eight games.

Things didn’t start well.

With one key player sidelined by injury, another playing her first game since undergoing knee surgery and a talented transfer still trying to figure out her role, State looked disjointed at times in an opening night 66-57 loss to South Carolina at Reynolds Coliseum.

After the game, Moore called his team a “work in progress.” If recent results are an indication, that progression is already well underway.

On Thanksgiving Day, the Wolfpack didn’t just beat No. 2 Maryland, it dominated the game from start to finish, getting 20 points and 10 rebounds from All-American center Elissa Cunane to beat the Terrapins 78-60 at the Baha Mar Hoops tournament in the Bahamas.

It was a win that catapulted State up to No. 2 in the national polls.

Seven days later, the Wolfpack validated that ranking by going to Indiana and beating the sixth-rated Hoosiers 66-58 in a game that also avenged a heartbreaking loss in last year’s NCAA Sweet 16.

One of the deciding factors in the victory was the play of Kayla Jones, one of three super seniors who decided to return for their extra year of eligibility.

The 6-foot-1 power forward, her damaged knee back to nearly full strength, scored all 17 of her points in the second half to help State pull away. She also had 11 rebounds for her ninth career double-double.

Her performance — and the result — were especially satisfying for Jones since she wasn’t able to contribute to the previous Indiana game because of the injury she suffered earlier in the NCAA Tournament.

“Going in, we all felt that it was personal,” Jones said afterward. “For me, I just felt like all the rehab and everything has paid off. I was excited for sure.”

Jones’ return isn’t the only reason for the improvement the Wolfpack has made since the South Carolina game.

Talented wing Jada Boyd is also back after missing the first five games with a torn tendon in her hand. She scored a season-high 17 points on Sunday in a lopsided win against Elon.

State, which is 8-1 heading into its ACC opener at Pittsburgh on Friday, has also gotten a major boost from newcomer Diamond Johnson.

The highly rated transfer from Rutgers struggled against the Gamecocks, going 2 for 12 from the floor in her Wolfpack debut, but she has quickly learned to fit in and become a difference-maker on both ends of the court. She leads the team in scoring at 13.4 points per game and is tied with fellow point guard Raina Perez for the lead with 26 assists.

“I knew it was gonna be a good fit to be surrounded by good basketball players, good people and good coaches, so I think it’s going as well as I envisioned. Probably even better,” Johnson said after a 62-34 demolition of Washington State on Nov. 27.

“I just needed to adjust, and the coaches put me in a good position for me to score, assist, still rebound, whatever I need to do. My teammates also have a lot of confidence too as they cheer me on, to shoot well and they just bring me up and bring a lot of energy to the table.”

That energy, combined with the experience of two straight ACC Tournament titles and the hunger of falling short of its Final Four goal last season, promise to make the Wolfpack a dangerous team come March.

State should be even better prepared for this postseason thanks to the difficult tests Moore set up for it before embarking on an even more challenging conference schedule.

“I feel like it shows us what we need to work on just to get to our final goal at the end of the season,” Jones said. “We want to win another conference championship, but we want to make it to the Final Four and do something big. I feel like this is the year, so I’m glad Coach Moore has us playing good competition.

“You’re not winning a championship in this part of the season, but you can learn. I feel like that’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to learn, and we’re sticking together. Every night is not going to be the best night, but we’re learning from it and we’re just going to keep pushing.”