Wolfpack win 3rd straight ACC Tournament, set sights on Final Four

NC State should be a No. 1 seed when the NCAA brackets are released Sunday

NC State guard Kai Crutchfield lays down in a pile of balloons after the Wolfpack defeated Miami 60-47 on Sunday to win their third straight ACC Women's Tournament title at Greensboro Coliseum. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

GREENSBORO — With all five starters returning and the addition of a blue-chip transfer to the mix, the NC State women’s basketball team expected to continue its dominance of the ACC this season.

The problem is everyone else expected it, too.

That, said coach Wes Moore, made winning much more difficult for his Wolfpack. But despite the lofty expectations, a difficult schedule and the target it wore on its collective back against a conference loaded with ranked contenders, State accomplished g goal.

The Wolfpack went 17-1 in the league to win their first ACC regular season championship since 1990, then posted three straight double-digit victories at Greensboro Coliseum to cut down the nets for their third straight conference crown.

“I think it was a challenge for me and maybe for them, too,” the Wolfpack coach said. “But that’s what makes it even sweeter when you’re able to come out and accomplish both those things this year, regular and postseason tournament.”

The Wolfpack (29-3) won all three of their games in Greensboro by double digits — starting their run by breezing to an 84-54 quarterfinal victory against Florida State on Friday, before taking down Virginia Tech 70-55 on Thursday and Miami 60-47 in Sunday’s championship final.

While the results and the celebration that followed were familiar — with hugs and smiles among the players, cheers from a partisan crowd in the stands, and a shower of confetti and balloons floating down from the rafters at the final buzzer — point guard Raina Perez said the path to this title wasn’t nearly as easy as she and her teammates made it look.

“I definitely thought it was more challenging this year,” the second-year graduate transfer said. “Teams know that everyone is coming back, and they know what we have. But I think we just had to dig deep in ourselves and execute everything, and everything would just fall through.”

As it turned out, everything did break just right for State in a tournament that didn’t follow form for anyone other than the event’s top seed. Thanks to a series of upsets, injuries and unexpected comebacks, the Wolfpack only had to face one of the ACC’s five other ranked teams.

Second-seeded Louisville, ranked right behind the Wolfpack at No. 4 in the nation and considered the greatest threat to State’s title hopes, was upset in the quarterfinals when Miami stormed back from 15 points down in the final 5½ minutes.

Third-seeded Notre Dame was also taken out by the surprising Hurricanes, while fourth-seeded North Carolina went one-and-done with an overtime quarterfinal loss to Virginia Tech.

Even the one ranked opponent the Wolfpack did have to face, the fifth-seeded Hokies, were far from full strength after their best player, ACC Player of the Year Elizabeth Kitley, was sidelined with a shoulder injury.

State nearly got caught up in the injury/illness epidemic that also claimed Georgia Tech’s Lorela Cubaj, Virginia Tech’s Cayla King and Wake Forest’s Christina Morra when star center Elissa Cunane tweaked her ankle early in the third quarter of Sunday’s title game against Miami.

State was comfortably ahead by that time, thanks to the balance it enjoys and the individual efforts of Perez, fellow guard Diamond Johnson, who arrived from Rutgers this season to become the ACC’s Sixth Woman of the Year, and backup center Camille Hobby.

Still, it was a comforting sight when Cunane returned from the locker room and, after a short turn on a stationary bike, returned to the lineup for the final 6½ minutes as the Wolfpack wore down the fatigued Hurricanes and began pulling away.

“I trusted my team to be able to handle the game,” said Cunane, who averaged 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds in three games to earn her second straight tournament MVP award. “But I was pretty happy to be out there for the last couple minutes.”

Moore said he put his star back into the game primarily to let “those 8,000 or so people (in attendance) wearing red know she was OK.”

Cunane and her teammates will take the next week off before learning their NCAA draw on Sunday.

That’s when the pressure figures to ramp up even higher, especially for the Wolfpack’s “super seniors” — Perez, Kayla Jones and Kai Crutchfield, all of whom chose to return for the extra year of eligibility granted them because of the COVID pandemic.

For them, the next few games represent their last shot at advancing past the Sweet 16 and competing for a national championship.

“That’s why they came back, the fifth-year kids, to try to rewrite the final chapter,” Moore said, adding that the ACC Tournament “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.”