RALEIGH – Coach Wes Moore gathered his NC State women’s basketball team at midcourt of Reynolds Coliseum before its final pre-NCAA Tournament practice on Friday and in the middle of the huddle, he set down what looked like a small step stool.
It was adorned with the words “NC State vs. Longwood.”
The prop was Moore’s self-described “cheesy” way of reminding his top-seeded Wolfpack not to get caught looking past the game at hand as it begins its quest to get over its recent Sweet 16 hump and challenge for a national championship.
“I got an idea from a good friend who had been very successful,” Moore said. “I had my neighbor Ron, he’s really good at woodwork, make a real beautiful step. We’re going to make (the players) step on that step as they go into the locker room, they get on the bus, whatever, to remind them to take one step at a time.
“That’s all we can worry about. There’s 68 teams in the bracket, but all we have to do is beat four of them to get to the Final Four. So don’t worry about 68 teams, worry about the next game. Maybe it’s a little cheesy, but it’s just a little reminder every time they enter a room … one step at a time.”
The first step will come Saturday at 2 p.m. against 16th-seeded Longwood, which defeated Mount St. Mary’s in a First Four game at Reynolds on Thursday. The winner will advance to a second-round Bridgeport Region matchup with either Washington State or Kansas State.
The Wolfpack (29-3) is a heavy favorite against the Big South champion Lancers (22-11). But after getting knocked out in the Sweet 16 in each of the past three NCAA Tournaments, the team’s veteran core knows better than to take any opponent lightly.
Three of those players, forward Kayla Jones, defensive ace Kai Crutchfield and point guard Raina Perez, returned for a fifth year of eligibility specifically to accomplish the so-far elusive goal of playing in a Final Four.
Rather than feeling pressure, Jones and Crutchfield said that they and her teammates are approaching their tournament opener with a sense of focus and excitement.
“The biggest thing is just enjoy the moment,” said Jones, whose knee injury in the opening round was a key factor in last year’s NCAA Tournament disappointment.
“It’s the last dance for us,” Crutchfield added. “Just seeing how we’ve grown as a team and the history that we’ve made and the legacy that we continue to perform at that level, I’m really excited.”
Longwood earned its date with the Wolfpack by jumping out to a big early lead and holding on late for a 74-70 win against Mount St. Mary’s.
Senior forward Akila Smith carried the Lancers with 32 points and 13 rebounds. But at only 5-foot-11, she’s going to face a taller task – literally – against State’s inside trio of 6-5 All-American Elissa Cunane, 6-1 Jones and 6-1 backup Camille Hobby.
If there’s one advantage Longwood has, it’s that it has already played a tournament game. State, on the other hand, has been idle for nearly two weeks since beating Miami for the ACC Tournament championship on March 5.
“We know we’re going to be challenged,” Moore said. “We have been off for almost two weeks, so hopefully we can knock the rust off pretty quickly and get going.”
While the layoff might have at least a temporarily adverse effect on the Wolfpack’s rhythm, it also allowed Cunane to get some needed time off after tweaking her ankle in the ACC final.
Moore proclaimed her fully healthy and ready to contribute at her usual high level.
Even if Cunane or any of the team’s other starters aren’t on their game, State has an abundance of other options to help carry it through – including ACC Sixth Person of the Year Diamond Johnson.
That, said Moore, is what gives this year’s team a better chance to complete its NCAA Tournament journey than it did as a No. 1 seed last March.
“We’ve got three things going for us that makes us special,” the Wolfpack coach said. “First you have to have talent. We’ve got some nice talent. I think experience is big and we’ve got that covered with three players that are in their fifth year. And then (there’s) depth.
“Last year, (it was) well-documented with Kayla Jones. We weren’t prepared to lose her like we did. We had Jada Boyd and then we had a bunch of freshmen that weren’t ready for that. So this year, if we get in foul trouble or somebody is having an off day, I think we are better equipped to handle that and hopefully be able to survive it.”
One step at a time, of course.