Wolfpack women face ‘big’ challenge in rematch with Kansas State

Stars Elissa Cunane and Ayoka Lee will be the centers of attention when NC State takes on Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament

Kansas State's Ayoka Lee is defended by NC State backup center Camille Hobby during the Wolfpack's win in the Preseason NIT in December. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — Her nickname is Big Smile. But don’t be deceived by the infectious grin that has become Elissa Cunane’s trademark.

As her NC State teammates will attest, Cunane is as competitive as they come when she’s presented a challenge.

And she’ll face a big one Monday when her top-seeded Wolfpack faces ninth-seeded Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament’s Bridgeport Regional at Reynolds Coliseum.

That’s big, as in the Wildcats’ solidly built 6-foot-6 center Ayoka Lee.

“Elissa has a competitive streak in her and wants to perform well, so I think probably when she’s faced with someone like Lee, who is a really great player, it definitely gets her attention,” State coach Wes Moore said of his 6-foot-5 All-American. “But, you know, I think Elissa has been pretty consistent throughout her career. Most of the time she’s going to show up and do her thing.”

Cunane leads the Wolfpack in both scoring and rebounding at 13.8 points and 7.7 boards per game, numbers that would be even more impressive if Moore hasn’t taken steps to keep her fresh by limiting her to just 25 minutes per game.

Lee, who set an NCAA women’s basketball record by scoring 61 points in a win against Oklahoma in January, averages a Big 12-leading 22.4 points and 10.2 rebounds.

While the two star centers play in different conferences in different areas of the country, they aren’t strangers to one another. They’ve already faced one another this season on the same court that they’ll meet again Monday.

The Wolfpack (30-3) beat Kansas State (20-11) at Reynolds in the final of the Preseason NIT on Nov. 19. 

Although Moore said the matchup was played too long ago to have any bearing on the rematch, it’s a game that remains fresh on Cunane’s mind — not because she and the Wolfpack beat the Wildcats 90-61 but because of the way Lee came on late in the game to win their individual battle. 

Lee outscored Cunane 19-18. Nine of those points, however, came in the fourth quarter after the outcome had already been decided.

“We kept her below her average, I remember that game,” Cunane said. “Obviously we came out with a W. I remember letting up a little in the fourth quarter, I still think about that to this day. Battling through every possession throughout the whole game will hopefully keep her under that.”

Despite being similar in height, the two centers are very different in the style with which they play.

Cunane is more athletic with the ability to put the ball on the floor, shoot from the perimeter and pass out of the low post. Lee is more of a physical presence with the ability to overpower opponents on both ends of the court.

Each presents a particular set of problems to the defense trying to stop them.

“She’s a physical defender, competitive, smart, knows how to play people and certainly has the physical gifts to do some of those things. And she’s willing to sacrifice,” Kansas State coach Jeff Mittie said of Cunane. “Offensively, she’s got the ability to run offense through her because she’s such a good passer. She’s also got the ability to use the bounce some with her back to the basket. She’s just a really, really good all-around player.”

Moore said the key to limiting Lee’s damage is trying to keep the ball out of her hands.

“You try to make it hard for them to get it to her, but they are really good at it,” he said. “We prepare three or four different ways to defend her, and you would love to just have to use one of them. But if that’s not working, then obviously you go to Plan B and, if need be, Plan C or whatever. 

“She’s got good hands and has a nice baby hook, which is really hard to defend. And offensive boards. She gets a lot of stuff there by being able to get position early and finish with the putback. So it will take a team effort.”

While stopping Lee is Job 1, the Wolfpack knows it can’t pay too much attention to the Wildcats’ star. In the first meeting this season, teammate Serena Sundell made five 3-pointers while scoring a team-leading 21 points.

“That’s the scary part,” Moore said. “It’s hard to cover all of them. When you’re focused on trying to slow down a great post player, it makes it a little bit easier for everybody else around them.”

That works both ways, of course, and Cunane is surrounded by an abundance of offensive talent as well. Eight different players have either led or tied for the scoring lead for State in a game this season.

As balanced as the Wolfpack’s lineup might be, there’s no doubt as to where NC State looks when the game gets tight and it needs a basket.

“We call her Big Smile,” teammate Kai Crutchfield said. “But when she turns on that aggressive mode, I’m like, ‘Yeah, there she is.’”