Wolfpack look to stay perfect at home when they host Tar Heels

The ranked rivals meet Thursday at Reynolds Coliseum

Aziaha James and NC State will look to stay perfect at home when they host rival UNC on Thursday at Reynolds Coliseum. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — Fifth-ranked NC State will hope to remain unbeaten at Reynolds Coliseum when it hosts 24th-ranked rival UNC on Thursday.

The Wolfpack have won four of the last five games between the two teams, including a 77-66 overtime victory last February in Raleigh.

NC State (18-2, 6-2 ACC) started the season by winning its first 14 games before dropping two of the next three ACC matchups, losing to Virginia Tech and Miami on the road.

Since then, however, the Wolfpack have won three straight by at least 15 points.

NC State is finding success with a balanced attack that can have a different primary scorer every night.

“It’s neat to have six players averaging in double-digit figures like we have been, but it’s not like they’re all scoring 10 or 12 points every night,” NC State coach Wes Moore said of having all five of his starters averaging more than 10 points per game plus freshman reserve Zoe Brooks getting 9.7. “Each night, we seem to have one or two players jump up there and score 24 or 25 points. That’s what’s nice. You don’t have to rely on one person. If someone is having an off night, we have other people that are able to pick up the slack.”

Junior guard Aziaha James has been leading the way for NC State, averaging 15.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game.

James has easily adjusted to a starting role and the increased minutes that come with it.

“[James] is the kind of player that if she sees a couple go through the net, she feeds off of that and gains confidence as she goes,” Moore said.

The Tar Heels (15-6, 7-2 ACC) come into the matchup of ranked rivals having dropped their most recent contest, an 81-66 loss to UVA.

“We know that every game matters,” said UNC coach Courtney Banghart. “Was it a tough game? I think with how Virginia played, there’s not a much tougher team. And with how Florida State played when they played us. What I’m happy with is that we’ve not lost a game because any other team didn’t play well. They had to play really well to beat us.”

Senior guard Deja Kelly continues to be one of the ACC’s top players, averaging 16.2 points, 3.3 assists and 1.4 steals per game.

She’s been the Tar Heels top scorer in 13 of their 21 games this season, including each of the last six.

Senior guard Alyssa Ustby is the No. 3 rebounder in the ACC, averaging 9.4 per game.

With NC State’s River Baldwin still not 100% according to Moore, the paint could be an area that UNC looks to capitalize.

The Heels are currently tied for second in the ACC, but their toughest stretch of the season starts with their visit to Reynolds Coliseum followed by a home game against No. 17 Virginia Tech on Sunday and a trip to Duke a week later.

“We’ve got NC State on the road, and that will be a really tough game,” Banghart said. “We know that. And whoever’s next will be tough too. Just like Virginia was tough. This is not a group that overlooks opponents. We know that every game on our schedule is hard. I don’t fear the rest of the schedule, I respect every opponent in our conference.”

The rivalry — which usually doesn’t need any additional fuel to reach a fever pitch — climbed to new heights after Banghart called NC State fans “classless” on a podcast appearance in August 2022.

At the time, Moore took the comments in stride, stating, “We’re all a little classless at times,” however it seems he still hasn’t quite forgotten.

“I think someone called our fans classless?” Moore told WKNC after his team’s last game, an 82-61 victory over Boston College. “Thursday night, I hope we’re real classless. I hope we bring the heat.”