GREENSBORO — There’s no love lost between NC State and its rival North Carolina. But Saturday, the Tar Heels provided an assist that helped the Wolfpack in its ACC Women’s Basketball Tournament semifinal against Virginia Tech.
Noticing how dominant UNC was on the offensive glass on Friday after Hokies star Elizabeth Kitley went out of its game with a shoulder injury, the Wolfpack drew up a game plan designed to take even greater advantage of its size mismatch inside.
With All-American center Elissa Cunane leading the way, it succeeded in a big way.
Cunane got six of her 13 rebounds on the offensive end while leading all scorers with 20 points to lift top-seeded State past the shorthanded Hokies 70-55 to advance to its third straight tournament championship game.
The Wolfpack will take on either third-seeded Notre Dame or No. 7 Miami in the final at noon Sunday.
“We saw in their game yesterday that Carolina got a lot of O-boards, so that’s one thing that we’ve really been focusing on, even the past couple months. Just rebounds, rebounds,” Cunane said. “I think without Liz in there, they didn’t have as much size. So we knew we could crash and just try to get rebounds.”
It’s a strategy that resulted in the Wolfpack (28-3) recording 16 offensive rebounds, nearly as many as the 23 Tech had overall, while outscoring its opponent 11-2 on second chance points. Seven different State players had at least one offensive rebound in the game.
Tech (23-9) tried its best by employing a zone defense for large portions of the game and double-teaming and getting physical with Cunane every time she got the ball on the low post.
And for a while, the strategy worked — especially since the officials weren’t in a mood to call fouls on either team.
The 6-foot-5 center missed five of her first six field goal attempts. It took her almost a quarter-and-a-half to finally adjust.
“I just had to slow down a little bit more,” Cunane said. “I think I got out of control a couple times and didn’t finish as strong. So I just had to slow down, go up through the contact and just finish better. I knew they were going to fall in the second quarter and beyond.”
It also helped that State coach Wes Moore moved Cunane from the low post to the high post to give her more room to operate. It also presented forward Jada Boyd opportunities to attack the basket from the wings.
Boyd came off the bench to score six points in the final 2:40 of the first quarter to help turn a one-point deficit into a 17-13 lead. She continued her success even as her teammates began to settle in, finishing with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting with four rebounds and two blocked shots.
“Jada Boyd, I think the last month or so, has been playing at a whole other level,” Moore said. “She makes a big difference for us when she is because she can help us on both ends of the floor and just did a great job today.”
While Boyd got the Wolfpack going in the first half, it was point guard Raina Perez that delivered the blow that finally put the determined Hokies away early.
It came on the opening two possessions of the fourth quarter.
State had already opened a 10-point lead by scoring the final seven points of the third period, including a long jumper by Jakia Brown-Turner at the buzzer. Perez then added to the momentum by driving for a basket then hitting a mid-range jumper.
Brown-Turner added two free throws to complete a 13-0 run that effectively put the game away against a Tech team that began to fall victim to the fatigue of playing its third game in three days — two of which with a short bench.
Not only was Kitley out of action, but starting guard Cayla King also missed the game after injuring an ankle in the Hokies’ tournament opener against Boston College on Thursday.
Tech’s tired legs were most visibly noticeable in its 3-point shooting. After making 11 3-pointers in their overtime win against UNC a day earlier, the Hokies managed only four on 18 attempts against State.
Guard Kayana Traylor led Tech with 18 points, but half of them came at the free throw line. Backcourt mate Georgia Amoore, whose shooting was a major factor in the win against the Tar Heels, went 4 of 17 (2 of 8 on 3-pointers) while scoring 12 points.
Of course, the Wolfpack’s defense also contributed to that performance.
“They really do a great job of knocking those (3-pointers) down,” Moore said. “I thought we did a nice job of getting a hand up.”
State’s task was made a little less complicated by the Hokies’ lack of size without the 6-foot-6 Kitley inside.
The ACC Player of the Year was in uniform and participated in pregame warmups, but Tech coach Kenny Brooks made the decision not to play her just before gametime.
“Elizabeth came out, gave it a go and wanted to play,” Brooks said. “It’s one of those things where these are my girls, these are my kids, and it’s not just about the game that’s at hand and what’s going to happen in the future. We felt like it was probably in her best interest to sit her today just so that she could rest and maybe not have a setback.”