GREENSBORO — Wes Moore, being the worrier that he is, was concerned about his NC State women’s basketball team getting off to a slow start in its ACC Tournament opener Friday against Florida State, a team that had already played and won a game in the event.
It didn’t take long for his star center, Elissa Cunane, to ease his fears.
Motivated by the start of March Madness and the opportunity to play in her hometown, not to mention the ability to show the conference’s Player of the Year voters that they’d made a mistake by snubbing her, the senior center got the top-seeded Wolfpack off and running to an 84-54 rout of the ninth-seeded Seminoles.
Cunane needed to play only 22½ minutes to amass 15 points and six rebounds as she and her teammates took an impressive first step toward a third straight tournament championship.
“It’s tournament time. Everyone wants to play better for tournament time,” Cunane said. “The next game is not guaranteed. It doesn’t matter what seed you are, so we’ve just got to come out here and play every game like it’s our last.”
Cunane goes by the nickname “Big Smile” because of her usually cheery disposition. On this occasion, though, she was all business, especially during a first quarter that set the tone for the rest of the game.
The 6-foot-5 senior from the Greensboro suburb of Summerfield established her dominance on both ends of the floor virtually from the opening tip.
She scored from both the low post and beyond the 3-point arc while also dishing out some punishment to FSU’s physical big River Baldwin. She rebounded and defended while also playing the role of playmaker by threading a perfect pass to a cutting Jada Boyd for an easy layup.
Cunane finished the quarter with nine points, three rebounds, two steals and an assist to help stake State to a 23-15 lead.
And that was just the beginning of what Seminoles coach Sue Semrau summed up as “a good old-fashioned butt-kicking.”
State (27-3) shot 52.4% from the floor, outrebounded Florida State 38-28, outscored it 21-3 off turnovers and 11-0 on fast breaks while holding Morgan Jones, the Seminoles’ leading scorer, to just seven points.
Although Cunane was the catalyst to the rout, she was hardly the only one doing damage. Ten different Wolfpack players scored in the game, with five posting nine or more points, led by Jakia Brown-Turner with 15 and Boyd with 12.
“We’ve had some great teams, been very blessed, but this is definitely the deepest team we’ve had,” Moore said after his team’s seventh straight ACC Tournament win. “A lot of people can come in.”
And all of them did.
After building a 36-21 halftime lead, State ended any thoughts of a comeback by the Seminoles (17-13) by scoring on seven of its first eight possessions out of the break — a run punctuated by a Kai Crutchfield 3-pointer in transition.
With the lead ballooning toward the 30-point mark by the end of the third quarter, Moore was able to rest his regulars by substituting liberally over the final 10 minutes.
Given the rare opportunity for extended playing time, deep reserves Aziaha James, Jessica Timmons, Genesis Bryant, Madison Hayes and Sophie Hart actually extended the margin. James showed why she was named to the ACC All-Freshman team despite seeing limited action by making a pair of 3-pointers and scoring nine points.
“I thought pretty much everyone contributed that went in there and did a nice job,” Moore said. “That’s important, to be able to save the legs a little bit by rotating and getting some depth in there.”
The easy victory wasn’t the only good news for the Wolfpack on Friday. Its chances for another successful title defense got even better later in the day when seventh-seeded Miami stunned No. 2 Louisville by scoring the game’s final 17 points for a 61-59 victory.
State could also get another break against its semifinal opponent, Virginia Tech, if the Hokies’ star center Elizabeth Kitley — who beat out Cunane for ACC Player of the Year honors — isn’t able to play because of a shoulder injury suffered in the Hokies’ overtime win against North Carolina.
Whether she plays or not, Moore said his team’s game plan will remain the same.
“It was really amazing what they did today,” Moore said of Virginia Tech’s effort against the Tar Heels. “That’s what I told our team, they won today without Kitley so you can’t take anything for granted.
“It’s this time of year where you’ve got to be locked in and ready to play. We’ve got to prepare as if she’s playing, and again, they’ve got a lot of weapons, so we know we’ll have our hands full.”