RALEIGH — An audible gasp could be heard from the once-festive sellout crowd at Reynolds Coliseum when NC State star Elissa Cunane picked up her second personal foul just three minutes into Monday’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament matchup with Kansas State.
Forget having to beat UConn in Bridgeport to get to the Final Four. There was a palpable feeling of concern in the old building that the top-seeded Wolfpack would be hard-pressed just to survive and advance past the second round.
Coach Wes Moore wasn’t worried, though. He’s been touting his team’s improved depth all year, and on a night in which the season could potentially have hung in the balance, it finally got a chance to shine.
Cunane’s backup Camille Hobby came off the bench and gave State the lift it needed, neutralizing Kansas State star Ayoka Lee on both ends of the court while catapulting the Wolfpack into their fourth straight Sweet 16 with an 89-57 rout of the ninth-seeded Wildcats.
The result was similar to the first time the teams met, in the Preseason NIT in December. With this latest win, State earned another rematch — this time against Notre Dame, the only ACC team to beat it during the regular season — in the Bridgeport Region semifinal on Saturday.
“I couldn’t be prouder of these young ladies. Every challenge that’s put before them, they just step up,” Moore said. “I’m just so blessed to be around them and so just very thankful. It’s great to have this much talent and depth that you can rotate. When somebody gets in foul trouble or somebody’s having an off night, we’ve got a lot of people that can step in and don’t miss a beat.”
As much confidence as Moore has in his bench, he admitted that he did at least have a moment of concern when he was forced to go to it so early.
“Elissa is obviously an All-American,” he said. “That was one of my fears coming into this game. You’ve got her guarding Lee and we could get in some foul trouble.”
Even though that happened, he need not have worried. Hobby entered the game with her team trailing 9-3 and immediately made her presence known by putting the ball on the floor, faking Lee off her feet and scoring.
Before the quarter was done, the 6-foot-1 junior would add another basket and a free throw while spearheading a defense that held Kansas State without a field goal for the final 7:47 and sent the 6-foot-5 Lee to the bench with foul trouble of her own.
And that was only the beginning.
Feeding off the energy of the rejuvenated crowd and with their star still watching from the sideline, the Wolfpack (31-3) started the second period on a 14-2 run to break the game open and put the Wildcats away by halftime.
“Coach Moore always talks about being ready. I was ready for that moment,” said Hobby, whose stat line of eight points, one rebound, one assist and one steal doesn’t give a true indication of her impact on the game. “At practice that is what we do every day. When the moment presented itself, I felt I was prepared enough to take on the responsibility.”
She didn’t have to carry the weight alone.
Starter Kayla Jones went 8 of 9 from the floor on her way to a team-leading 18 points and point guard Raina Perez scored 15 points while adding six rebounds and four assists. Fellow reserve Diamond Johnson also scored 15 points, breaking out of a recent shooting slump by going 5 for 5 from beyond the 3-point arc.
All 13 players that got into the game for State broke into the scoring column.
Lee, meanwhile, was never a factor. Although she finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, both figures were well below her season averages. Guard Serena Sundell led Kansas State (20-13) with 17 points.
State expanded its lead to as many as 35 points at 81-46 with 5:04 remaining before Moore began taking his starters out — giving each of his seniors a curtain call in their final appearances at Reynolds.
The biggest ovation was reserved for Cunane, who only needed to play 14 minutes while recording four points and two rebounds.
“It was amazing just to hear how loud they were and just to leave on that note,” Jones said. “As a senior, it was a great feeling and I’m sure all my teammates can say the same. To come out with a win like that, it was amazing.”