RALEIGH — Two seasons ago, the NC State women’s basketball team rolled into Chapel Hill undefeated and riding high before being knocked down a peg in an upset loss to rival North Carolina.
On Thursday, the No. 5 Wolfpack got a chance to return the favor to the Tar Heels. And with veterans Elissa Cunane, Kayla Jones and Kai Crutchfield leading the way, it wasn’t about to waste the opportunity.
State jumped out to a quick 10-point lead by holding UNC scoreless for the game’s first five minutes and never looked back, handing the 19th-ranked Tar Heels their first loss of the season with a dominating 72-45 win at a sold out Reynolds Coliseum.
“Mentally, we were just really in it,” said Cunane, who exorcized some of her own personal ghosts against UNC with a 19-point, 13-rebound double-double that included a career-high tying three 3-pointers. “We were really ready to play a game.”
It showed right from the jump.
Cunane blocked a shot by Anya Poole on UNC’s first possession of the game, then scored on the low post on the other end of the court to spark what turned out to be a game-breaking 10-0 opening run.
Deja Kelly, who scored 21 of her team’s 45 points, finally got the Tar Heels on the scoreboard at the 4:50 mark of the first quarter. But from that point on, the Wolfpack lead never dipped below double figures.
It grew to 24-7 by the end of the first quarter that saw State shoot 50% from the floor (10 of 20), make four 3-pointers and outrebound the Tar Heels 17-4.
While the shooting touch eventually cooled off somewhat, the Wolfpack (13-2, 4-0 ACC) continued to dominate the glass — to the tune of 53-40 by the time all was said and done — while forcing 17 turnovers and extending its lead to as many as 29 points.
It was an inspired performance fueled by a kick in the pants from one of the game’s coaches, though not necessarily the one that provided the pregame bulletin board material. That would be UNC’s Courtney Banghart, who downplayed State’s ability to sell out Reynolds by calling it “a small gym.”
Rather, it was the Wolfpack’s own Wes Moore, who said he hasn’t been happy with his team’s defensive effort lately.
“I was hard on them this week, probably too hard to be honest with you,” Moore said, describing himself as having been “buttholish” at practice over the past few days. “I’m so proud of the way they came out on defense, the energy they had, the urgency they had, the toughness they had. That’s what we have to do if we’re going to be successful in this league.”
As happy as Moore was with his team’s effort, his coaching counterpart was just as disappointed with the way her Tar Heels played.
UNC (13-1, 3-1) shot just 23.1% from the floor, went 5 of 21 from the 3-point arc, gave State far too many open shots and got significant offensive contributions from only two players. Other than Kelly and Alyssa Ustby, the rest of UNC’s team was able to muster only 12 points between them.
The Tar Heels finished the game with only four assists and more turnovers (17) than field goals (15).
“We didn’t shoot well. That’s easily seen on the stat sheet. But we just didn’t play well on either end,” Banghart said. “Our pace, our purpose, our connectedness. I told them that wasn’t a team I recognized.”
No one was happier to see an unfamiliar Tar Heel team than Cunane. The All-American center has had some of her worst games against a UNC team that has utilized a physical game plan to defend her.
But with long-time nemesis Janelle Bailey having graduated and no one else big or strong enough to move Cunane off her spots, the State star put together one of her best, most dominant performances of the season.
“It was definitely different not having Bailey in there,” she said. “Seeing some different faces, I think we were able to attack that and get it in there.”
She was even feeling it from the perimeter, going 3 of 4 from distance on the way to a 6-of-8 shooting night.
“They were sagging in defensively,” Cunane said, “so once I hit the first two (3-pointers), I was like, ‘If I’m open, I’m going to pull it.”
And she wasn’t the only one.
Eleven different State players scored in the game with seven of them contributing at least one 3-pointer.
Point guard Raina Perez helped fuel the fast start with eight points, while Jones helped lengthen the lead out of halftime by scoring the bulk of her nine points in the third quarter. Jada Boyd also had eight points while Jakia Brown-Turner and Diamond Johnson had six each.
“It’s a luxury having the talent that we do,” Moore said. “It’s going to help us. I know the young players can get the job done, but Elissa Cunane, Kayla Jones … those are two kids that have been great for this program for a few years, and tonight they were great when we needed them.”