NC State women: Winners and still ACC Tournament champions

The top-seeded Wolfpack clinched its third straight conference tournament title with a dominant 60-47 victory against Miami

MVP Elissa Cunane hugs teammate Jada Boyd as they celebrate the 60-47 win against Miami that clinched NC State's third straight ACC Tournament title (PJ Ward-Brown/North State Journal)

GREENSBORO — When NC State women’s basketball starters Kayla Jones, Kai Crutchfield and Raina Perez all decided to return for the extra year of eligibility granted them by the NCAA, they did so with three specific goals.

Win the ACC regular season title. Bring home a third straight conference tournament championship. Finally get over the hump by getting to the Final Four.

Two down, one to go.

Led by an MVP performance from star center Elissa Cunane, the top-seeded Wolfpack backed up its regular season title on Sunday by beating seventh-seeded Miami 60-47 to successfully defend its tournament title.

Cunane scored 17 points and pulled down eight rebounds despite missing most of the third quarter with an ankle injury, and Raina Perez added 12 points to help wear down a Hurricanes team playing its fourth game in as many days and set off a now-familiar shower of confetti and balloons from the rafters of Greensboro Coliseum.

“That’s why they came back, the fifth-year kids, to try to rewrite the final chapter,” State coach Wes Moore said. “This isn’t the final chapter, but it’s a pretty nice chapter to go out. I just couldn’t be prouder of what they’ve done.” 

NC State coach Wes Moore sports new headgear after cutting down the nets at Greensboro Coliseum for the third straight year. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

The Wolfpack (29-3) will find out its NCAA Tournament draw on Selection Sunday next week. By winning yet another ACC title, it all but assured itself of a No. 1 seed as it looks to advance past its recent stumbling block of the Sweet 16.

All three of the “super seniors” played major roles in their team’s latest championship victory.

Perez, whose buzzer-beating jumper against Louisville secured the title in 2020, finished with 12 points. Jones added six points and 10 rebounds, while Crutchfield spearheaded a defense that held Miami to just 31.5% shooting and 3 of 19 from 3-point range.

It was Cunane, however, that did most of the heavy lifting for the Wolfpack. As she did the entire tournament.

The 6-foot-5 senior overcame some early shooting yips to go 5 of 11 from the floor and 7 of 8 from the free-throw line. 

Her two biggest baskets came late in the first half — a short jumper off a feed from Jones and a layup that turned into a 3-point play that sparked a run of 10 straight points, opened up a 32-23 lead and finally began the process of putting away a weary Hurricanes team.

But just when it seemed as though State had things well under control, disaster nearly struck when Cunane came down hard while fighting for a rebound with 6:40 left in the third quarter, injuring her left ankle.

“I just took a bad fall, but I’m good,” Cunane said afterward. “I’ll get a little treatment the next couple days and be back out there.”

It didn’t seem that way when she was taken back to the locker room for observation, especially in a tournament that had already seen Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley — the ACC’s Player of the Year — and Georgia Tech star Lorela Cubaj sidelined by injury.

“When Elissa went down, obviously you get scared,” Perez said. “If anyone on the team goes down, you kind of get scared. But she got back up and started walking off a little bit, so we all figured she was fine. We were hoping she was fine at least.”

NC State center Elissa Cunane winces in pain after injuring her ankle during the third quarter of Sunday’s win against Miami. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

Cunane’s departure seemed to rattle the Wolfpack, at least offensively. They went the next 4:23 without a field goal. At the same time, though, NC State’s defensive intensity picked up by forcing Miami (20-12) into missing nine straight shots and holding it scoreless for the same stretch.

Perez then got State going again with a pair of baskets before Diamond Johnson broke out of her recent shooting slump by bracketing 3-pointers on the final possession of the third quarter and the first one of the fourth. Johnson finished with 11 points, three assists and three steals.

From that point on, the only suspense was whether Cunane would return. After a turn on the stationary bike behind the bench, she checked back in with 6:56 and played the rest of the way.

“I thought about not putting her back in, but part of the reason I put her back in is I wanted those 8,000 people or so wearing red to know she was OK,” Moore said of the large contingent of Wolfpack fans in attendance. “I know that sounds crazy, but I wanted to get her back out there and let her get up and down the court a couple of times and know she’s going to be ready to go here in a couple of weeks.”

Regardless of whether State is able to cross the final goal off its to-do list in the NCAA Tournament, Moore said his players have already cemented their place in school and ACC history. 

“I always said when I got to this level, I wanted to win with high-character individuals, and it’s just been such a great journey,” Moore said. “What a legacy these folks are leaving. Three straight tournament titles, regular season championship. That’s not easy to do, especially in this league that is so talented with so many great coaches. It’s just an unbelievable accomplishment.”