Epic comeback catapults Wolfpack women past Louisville

No. 4 NC State rallied from a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to beat the third-ranked Cardinals and snap the nation's longest winning streak at 15

NC State's Elissa Cunane (33) lets out a scream while her teammates celebrate after her basket during the Wolfpack's fourth quarter comeback against Louisville on Thursday (PJ Ward-Brown/North State Journal)

RALEIGH — With his fourth-ranked team trailing No. 3 Louisville by double digits and playing poorly on both ends of the court, coach Wes Moore issued a stern but direct challenge to his NC State women’s basketball team at halftime on Thursday.

“I just reminded them that you can either keep doing what you’re doing and be totally embarrassed or you can do something really special,” he said. “They chose something special, thank goodness.”

Did they ever.

It took a full quarter for the turnaround to finally begin. But once the blitz got started, the Wolfpack literally couldn’t be stopped. 

Led by the hot shooting of Diamond Johnson and Jakia Brown-Turner and fueled by a raucous sellout crowd at Reynolds Coliseum, State roared back from a 14-point fourth quarter deficit to stun the Cardinals 68-59.

“It was an unbelievable comeback win against a great team and a great coach,” Moore said. “We were fortunate it worked out.”

NC State coach Wes Moore shows his displeasure with his team during the first half of Thursday’s game against Louisville at Reynolds Coliseum. (PJ Ward-Brown/North State Journal)

Louisville (15-2, 5-1 ACC) came into the game with the nation’s longest winning streak at 15 straight and looked every bit the part of the better team for the first three quarters.

The Cardinals were more physical, more aggressive and — at least it appeared — significantly more motivated for the three quarters while dominating the offensive glass and frustrating State with its 1-3-1 zone defense.

The Wolfpack (17-2, 8-0) missed 12 of its first 13 3-point attempts and gave up 13 offensive rebounds, leading to 16 second chance points through the first three quarters. Johnson, in particular, had had her problems, going 1 for 12 from the floor.

“Obviously it was very disappointing and frustrating the first three quarters,” Moore said. “You have to give Louisville credit. They were the aggressor, they just manhandled us every which way possible.”

Things got so bad that Moore sat starters Elissa Cunane, Raina Perez and Brown-Turner and replaced them with Camille Hobby and seldom-used reserves Madison Hayes and Aziaha James in an effort to create any kind of energy.

While the move didn’t pay dividends on the scoreboard, it did serve to light a fire under the starters when they returned to the court to start the fourth quarter trailing 51-37.

“Having them in the game was really big for us,” Brown-Turner said. “Seeing them have energy and get rebounds, we were able to piggyback off that and accomplish what we were doing.”

Diamond Johnson (0) and Kayla Jones (25) converge on a loose ball after Louisville’s Emily Engstler loses control during the fourth quarter of Thursday’s game. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

The comeback started innocently enough. After Brown-Turner and Johnson scored consecutive baskets to cut the deficit to 10, Louisville’s Olivia Cochran — who finished with a season-high 19 points — quieted the crowd with a quick answer in the lane.

As it turned out, it was the last basket the Cardinals would make for the next eight minutes.

“We knew as a team that our shots weren’t falling, so we had to win off defense,” Johnson said. “Once the defense picked up, it gave us energy for the shots to fall. We never lost confidence, we never stopped shooting.”

Johnson was spot on in her assessment. Over a 13-possession stretch, State forced Louisville into missing all seven of its field goal attempts while forcing five turnovers. 

And on the other end of the court, the shots finally started falling.

Johnson got the ball rolling with her first 3-pointer of the night. Brown-Turner added with a 3 of her own then made a layup in transition off a Johnson drive. 

Cunane got State to within one with a 3-point play off an inbounds pass underneath before Johnson pulled up for a 3-pointer from the top of the circle to complete the comeback and give her team a 55-53 lead.

As stunning as the rally was in terms of the number of points the Wolfpack made up, it was even more impressive in the amount of time it took — just 5½ minutes.

But State wasn’t even close to being through. 

Diamond Johnson scored 14 of her 16 points during the fourth quarter of Thursday’s win against Louisville. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

Johnson hit two more treys to extend the advantage to 58-53. Then after Louisville’s Emily Engstler finally halted State’s run at 17 unanswered points with a pair of free throws with 3:42 remaining, the Wolfpack came right back with a 10-0 run to put the game away.

Between them, Johnson and Brown-Turner combined to score 24 of State’s 31 points in the fourth quarter.

“I knew my shot wasn’t going to be off for that long, so I just kept shooting,” said Brown, who scored 16 points overall. Brown-Turner added 14 while Cunane led the way for State with 15 points and 12 rebounds.

As a team, the Wolfpack outscored Louisville 31-8 over the incredible final 10 minutes.

“It ended up being a fun night,” Moore said. “Either way, you knew this wasn’t the last chapter. You knew this was going to be a big chapter in the book.”