RALEIGH — The NC State women’s basketball team couldn’t have asked for a better start to the NCAA Tournament than the one it got on Saturday.
The top-seeded Wolfpack took care of business with little-to-no stress, dispatching 16th-seeded Longwood 96-68 at Reynolds Coliseum, and was able to give their starters plenty of rest for the next round and — most importantly — made it through without anybody getting hurt.
That didn’t happen a year ago when an opening round injury to forward Kayla Jones proved to be the beginning of the end of State’s Final Four hopes.
This time, the Wolfpack sprinted into a second-round Bridgeport Regional matchup against Kansas State by putting five players in double figures and breaking a school record with their 30th win of the season.
“We’ve been off for a couple of weeks, so I think it was good to get back out there and get a little momentum, a little confidence going,” said State coach Wes Moore, whose team was playing for the first time since winning its third straight ACC Tournament championship 13 days earlier.
“You’re glad to get the win and move on. We know we have a long path ahead of us, but we’re focused on one step at a time and, hopefully, we can continue to do that.”
Although the issue was never in doubt, the Wolfpack (30-3) still showed some signs of rust against the Big South Conference champion Lancers, who had to beat Mount St. Mary’s in a play-in game Thursday just to get into the main bracket.
They jumped out to a quick 15-5 lead on the strength of Raina Perez’s perimeter shooting, then took their foot off the accelerator by letting Longwood (22-12) score eight straight points late in the first quarter.
The Lancers were still within four at 23-19 midway through the second quarter when State got a spark from its bench — specifically Diamond Johnson and Jada Boyd — coming out of a TV timeout.
“Those are two players that, when you bring them in, you can really take off and explode,” Moore said. “It’s not a spark they gave us, it’s a bonfire.”
Johnson, the ACC’s Sixth Player of the Year, was particularly instrumental in getting her team going, hitting a pair of 3-pointers and scoring eight of her 12 points during a 19-2 run to end the second quarter. The Wolfpack then broke the game open by scoring the first eight points of the second half on a pair of Jakia Brown-Turner 3-pointers and a crossover drive to the basket by a now fully healthy Jones.
“We just wanted to take the lead and try to stretch it,” Perez said. “I think we were just in our heads. We missed a lot of shots, we didn’t get back. But we tried to stretch the lead and just wanted to come out strong and dominate the game.”
State accomplished that goal in every possible way.
It shot exactly 50% from the floor (36 of 72) while holding Longwood to just 33.3% (23 of 69). It outrebounded the smaller Lancers 50-38 while forcing 14 turnovers, scoring 35 second-chance points and getting 46 points off its bench.
Perez led the way with 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting, Boyd-Turner added 15 and All-American center Elissa Cunane had 16 and seven rebounds while playing only 19-plus minutes. Reserves Boyd and Johnson were the other Wolfpack players in double figures with 12 points each.
As solid as State was on offense, it was even better on defense — especially against Longwood’s Akila Smith.
Smith scored 31 points in her team’s play-in victory but managed only 10 on 4-of-14 shooting Saturday. Teammate Tra’Dayja Smith made five 3-pointers and scored 25 points to lead the Lancers.
“We prepared a few different ways, but the main thing is we just told (Jones) and Jada Boyd to try to get it out of her hands, get on top of her and deny down the lane,” Moore said of the strategy to stop Akila Smith. “When she does get it, let’s make sure help is ready to dig a little bit. She had eight offensive rebounds the other night. Our kids did a pretty good job of keeping her off the glass. That always helps, too.”
State will have to work even harder on the glass in its second-round matchup against Kansas State’s 6-foot-6 Ayoka Lee, the Big 12 Player of the Year who scored 61 points in a win against Oklahoma in January.
She was much less effective the first time she faced the Wolfpack a few games before that. She was held to 19 on Nov. 19 in a 90-69 State victory that Brown-Turner said will have little effect on Monday’s rematch.
“It was early in the season when we played Kansas State,” she said. “Things have changed. It’s good that we have film on our game before to work on it.”