Wolfpack women confidently cruise into hostile Bridgeport

NC State took care of business and will next face the only ACC team to beat the team this year, Notre Dame

Jakia Brown-Turner and NC State will look to reverse history and get past the Sweet 16. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — Five months, 34 games and two championships later, the NC State women’s basketball team is about to start its 2021-22 season.

The opening game will be played against ACC rival Notre Dame in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on Saturday.

It’s actually the regional semifinal round of the NCAA Tournament, the Wolfpack’s school-record fourth straight trip to the Sweet 16. But for the four seniors in the team’s starting lineup — especially graduates Kayla Jones, Kai Crutchfield and Raina Perez — it’s the moment they’ve been waiting an entire year to embrace.

“We’ve gone to the Sweet 16 three years in a row, now four, and they are not satisfied with that,” coach Wes Moore said Monday after State’s impressive 89-57 second round rout of Kansas State at Reynolds Coliseum. “They didn’t come back to do that again. So I think they’re still going to be hungry. And we know we’re going to go into a hostile environment now. Now it’s our turn.”

Jones, Crutchfield and Perez all could have moved on after last season but chose to use the extra year of eligibility granted to them by the NCAA because of the COVID pandemic to get one more shot at helping State get over its recent stumbling block and reach a Final Four.

Along with senior center Elissa Cunane and an enhanced bench, they’ve put themselves in a position to do that by compiling a 31-3 record, winning the ACC regular season and tournament championships and earning a No. 1 NCAA regional seed.

Unlike last year, when a knee injury to Jones helped derail their chances in an upset loss to Indiana, the Wolfpack enter the second week of this year’s tournament healthy and in a position of strength after cruising through their first two opponents — Longwood and Kansas State — by an average margin of 30 points.

That’s not to say the road to the Final Four will be an easy one.

Before it can start thinking about a trip to Minneapolis, State must first survive a challenging journey to Connecticut and a rematch with the only ACC team to beat it this season. If all goes well against Notre Dame (24-8), the Wolfpack would then face the prospect of playing perennial power UConn in an arena filled with Huskies fans.

Not that Jones and her teammates are looking that far ahead.

“We always take it one game at a time,” the 6-foot-1 forward said. “Then we’re going to listen to Coach Moore’s game plan. Whoever we have next, we’re going to listen to him, know the scout and just be ready to play ball. It’s not going to be easy, so we’re going to go out there throwing the first punch and being aggressive.”

State did just that in its first two NCAA games, rolling up big enough early leads so that Moore could rest his regulars and give reserves such as freshman Aziaha James — who came in and produced a SportsCenter Top 10 highlight against Longwood — a chance to shine for much of the fourth quarter in both games.

Getting off to strong starts, however, was much easier with the energy provided by large, supportive crowds at Reynolds.

That won’t be the case from here on out. In fact, the opposite will be true — even though State is seeded higher than the team that will enjoy a decided homecourt advantage through the next two rounds.

If there’s a saving grace to the unfavorable situation, it’s that the Wolfpack have played and thrived in enemy territory before, winning at South Carolina and Louisville last season when both were ranked No. 1 in the nation and this season at Indiana as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

“We know we’re going to go into a hostile environment now. Now it’s our turn,” Moore said. “You know, these kids, they’ve got a lot of confidence, a lot of experience. They have won big games on the road. Last year beating South Carolina and Louisville, both ranked No. 1 in the country. We beat both of them on the road. I’m confident they will handle it better this time, and we’ve got the depth to hopefully overcome any adversity we might face.”