Wolfpack women’s season ends in heartbreak

The NC State women lost in double overtime to UConn, denying them a Final Four spot

UConn guard Paige Bueckers reacts in double overtime of the Huskies' 91-87 win over NC State in the East Regional final Monday in Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Frank Franklin II / AP Photo)

The NC State women’s basketball team finally got over its Sweet 16 hump. The next mountain, however, was simply too steep to climb.

Forced to play a virtual road game in a hostile environment against the most dominant program in its sport, despite being the No. 1 seed, the Wolfpack came up one game short of the Final Four on Monday.

Coach Wes Moore’s veteran team nearly overcame the odds by rallying from another double-figure deficit and battling through two overtimes. That only added to the disappointment as the second-seeded Huskies and their star Paige Bueckers ended NC State’s most successful three-year stretch in school history with a 91-87 decision in the NCAA East Region final in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

“We knew it would be hard coming in. Getting this far in general is hard,” said junior forward Jakia Brown-Turner, whose team-leading 20 points included a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of the first extra period.

“I know everyone was saying that it was UConn’s backyard or whatever. But we just came out, played for each other and we gave it all we had.”

Whether it was the environment, the pressure or simply bad shooting luck, things didn’t go well early for the normally sharpshooting Wolfpack.

Going just one for its first 10 from beyond the 3-point arc, State fell behind by 10 late in the first quarter before fighting back, just as it did during the regular season against Louisville and again two days earlier in a come-from-behind Sweet 16 win against ACC rival Notre Dame.

NC State forward Jakia Brown-Turner’s 3-pointer near the end of overtime sent the Wolfpack’s Elite Eight game with UConn to a second extra period. (Frank Franklin II / AP Photo)

The lead changed hands six times in the fourth quarter before the Wolfpack (32-4) gained possession with a chance to win in regulation. But Diamond Johnson’s attempted drive was cut off by UConn center Aaliyah Edwards, forcing Kai Crutchfield to put up a long 3-pointer that missed everything as time expired.

Brown-Turner’s dramatic 3-pointer extended the game into a second overtime before Bueckers — who scored 15 of her 27 points after the end of regulation, including 6 of 6 from the free-throw line, in just her ninth game back from a knee injury — finally put the Huskies (29-5) over the top.

While UConn denied State its second Final Four appearance and first since 1998, the Huskies will be heading back for the 14th straight year.

“We fell behind again and had to dig ourselves out of a tough situation,” Moore said. “I’m really disappointed I didn’t call another timeout there at the end of regulation.

“It’s a tie game so you don’t want to leave time on the clock for them to have a chance to win it in regulation, but we should have got a better look than we did. That’s what I’m going to have to live with for a while. I wish I had that possession over.”

Moore isn’t the only one left with a feeling of regret. The Wolfpack’s core group of All-American center Elissa Cunane and graduate students Crutchfield and Kayla Jones — along with two-year transfer Raina Perez — all saw their college careers end without the one accomplishment they most desperately wanted.

Their play on the court and leadership off it helped State compile a 72-11 record over the past three seasons. That includes three straight ACC Tournament championships and the first outright regular season league crown since 1990.

That success was tempered by some bad timing and even worse luck in the NCAA Tournament.

The event was canceled because of the COVID pandemic in 2020. The following year, a knee injury to Jones left the team shorthanded in a Sweet 16 upset loss to Indiana. The latter was such a disappointment that Jones, Crutchfield and Perez all chose to return for a fifth year of eligibility to get one more shot at a Final Four.

It’s a shot that was at least partially blocked by an NCAA selection committee — whose chair was Duke athletic director Nina King — that chose to give a decided advantage to a lower-seeded team in its bracket.

“We were No. 1 seed for a reason,” Cunane said. “We proved that over the whole course of the season. I think coming in here we knew we were capable of. We were supposed to be a No. 1 seed and we came in with that attitude.”

Although they leave with a hole in their collective resume, Moore said that Cunane and her fellow upperclassmen have earned a special place in Wolfpack lore because of all they did accomplish.

“What a legacy they have now,” he said. “Again, another step would have made it a better legacy. But we definitely got all the effort and heart that you could ask for out of them. I can’t say enough about that group and what they’ve done, not only hanging banners in Reynolds Coliseum but also just the lives they’ve touched and the people that just have really bought into our program.”