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Photo by Chris Downey, NC State Athletics
NC State Women's Basketball

TAKEAWAYS: Balanced attack sends Wolfpack to Sweet 16

March 24, 2021
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So far in this NCAA Tournament, NC State women’s basketball is proving itself to be a second-half team. Tuesday against South Florida, the Pack again shook off a less-than-ideal first 20 minutes, outsourcing the Bulls 44-31 in the second half en route to a 79-67 win. 

The Wolfpack is now in the Sweet 16 for the third straight NCAA Tournament, tying a program record, and on Saturday will face the winner of Indiana and Belmont.

Here’s a few key takeaways from Tuesday’s victory.


All hands on deck in Jones’ absence

The Wolfpack found itself shorthanded in this one with Kayla Jones out of the lineup after suffering a knee injury in Sunday’s first-round win. Moore said after the game that Jones has a patellar tendon injury and her availability going forward would be a matter of pain intensity and tolerance, but the team is hoping she’ll improve in the next few days.

“We really didn’t know if [Jones] was going to play or not today, but we just knew she was there for us the whole time, talking to us and just telling us what she saw out on the court from the bench,” said Jakia Brown-Turner. So she helped us a lot, cheering for us and telling us things that we could do towards winning the game.”

The Wolfpack needed others to step up with Jones out.  And despite Elissa Cunane also performing below her usual standard, the Pack came through -- with all five starters (Raina Perez, Kai Crutchfield, Brown-Turner, Jada Boyd, and Cunane) finishing in double figures. 

In Sunday’s first round game, Boyd led NC State with 18 points off the bench. With Jones out Tuesday, Boyd was called upon to make her fourth start of the season and first since Jan. 24. The ACC’s sixth player of the year responded, stepping up with another 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting to go with 10 rebounds for her fifth double-double of the season. 

Wes Moore said down the stretch of the season that the Wolfpack would need Boyd to be great in the postseason to achieve its goals, and she’s certainly been that in two games.

“Jada is just so explosive and athletic,” Moore said. “She creates some matchup problems for some people. … We’re very blessed and fortunate to have Jada Boyd. I’ve said all year long that we’ve got six starters. With Kayla Jones out, Jada Boyd steps right in. It does hurt us a little bit depth wise, and like I said, [Jones] does so many things. It’s hard to replace that. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have coming in and filling in like that than Jada Boyd.”

Jakia Brown-Turner continued to bounce back from a poor showing in the ACC Tournament with one of her best outings of the season, leading the Wolfpack with 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting and adding four rebounds and two assists and hitting two of four attempts from behind the arc. 

Brown-Turner’s ability to create her own shots was important for the Wolfpack in this one, particularly as Cunane struggled in the first half (Brown-Turner scored 13 first-half points).

“Jakia’s not been shooting as well as she normally can,” Moore said. “So I just kept reminding her, ‘You’ve done it all your life. You’ve been a great shooter all your life.’ She was getting to where she was passing up 3s and looking to attack, but we need her to knock down 3s, because that creates spacing for our offense. It gets people off [Elissa Cunane]. “We need to get Jakia going, and it was good to see her hit 2 out of 4 today. We need that to have some balance in our offense. It was a big lift for us. 

Kai Crutchfield, or “Clutchfield,” as the senior guard has been called on many occasions, continues to have a knack for knocking down big shots from beyond the arc. She scored 11 points Tuesday and hit all three of her tries from downtown, and she also helped set up her teammates with six assists to just one turnover. 

Crutchfield is now 7 for 8 from three in this tournament. 

“She’s that person we try to have matched up with the other team’s best scorer,” Moore said. “For the most part, she’s done a good job with that. But it is good to see her. I think she hit three 3s today. I tell you what, the other thing is, six assists, one turnover. So again, she did a lot of things well for us. So the Swiss-Army Knife or jack-of-all-trades comparison, Kai’s doing that for us at a good time of year.”

Cunane had what could definitely be called an off day for her offensively as she shot just 3 for 15 from the field, and the Bulls defended her physically in the paint. She had just three points in the first half. 

Cunane still managed to make a big impact, however, with 10 points overall (seven in the second half) and 11 rebounds, all of which came on the defensive glass, for her sixth double-double of the season – and she also added three assists. Cunane was also able to get the Bulls’ bigs in foul trouble, as Shae Leverett and Bethy Mununga both fouled out of the game. 

“It’s important for us just to make sure that she gets touches and gets shots,” Moore said. “Fifteen shots, I’d be thrilled with that pretty much every game to get her in that range. She normally shoots about 60 percent from the field. I go to Vegas in August every year for about a week, and I know you want to play the odds. Elissa has pretty good odds when you’re shooting 60 percent. … We’ll move on to the next game and keep going to her. I’ve got a lot of confidence. I think Darrell Royal, the old Texas football coach, used to say ‘I’m gonna dance with the one that brung me.’ So, we’re gonna keep dancing with Elissa, that’s for sure.”

Perez chipped in 10 points and hit a few big shots throughout the game while also running the floor with four assists to two turnovers. 

First-half battle

It was clear from the outset that NC State was going to be in for a tough matchup Tuesday. The Wolfpack and Bulls battled back and forth throughout the opening 20 minutes to a 36-35 South Florida lead at halftime. 

While the Wolfpack certainly was once again not at its best in the first half, it also fell victim to some ridiculous shooting from the Bulls, as South Florida knocked down several contested, off-balanced shots and hit 6 of 14 from 3-point land in the opening half.

While NC State didn’t have a terrible first half offensively, shooting 46% from the field, ball security was an issue with six first-half turnovers.

The Bulls’ defense was able to lock in on and frustrate Cunane, holding her to just three points on 1-for-7 shooting through two quarters. 

Pack gets it going in third quarter

Similar to Sunday’s game, the Wolfpack shook off a subpar first half and roared into the third quarter, outsourcing the Bulls 24-11 to take a 59-47 lead into the final frame. NC State shot 50% from the field in the third quarter and finally got some stops and saw USF’s red-hot shooting cool off, with the Bulls hitting just 21% from the field. 

The Pack did a little bit of everything in the third, scoring eight points in the paint, knocking down a couple of threes, scoring five off turnovers, and hitting eight free-throws. Cunane also got going in the third quarter, scoring seven points. 

The Pack ripped off a 12-4 run over the first 3:35 of the half to take a 47-40 lead. USF responded with a 5-0 run to cut the Wolfpack’s lead to two, but NC State didn’t bat an eye, and a pair of free throws from Cunane, a three from Crutchfield, a layup from Boyd, a jumper from Perez, and a few more free throws gave the Wolfpack a 12-0 run and 14-point advantage as USF found itself in serious foul trouble. 

“We got in a little bit of a rhythm offensively,” Moore said. “That’s when Jakia came out and hit some threes, and Kai hit some threes. Elissa, they were very physical with her. “... It’s good when you can see the ball go through the net. I think that helps. That also helps you on the other end of the floor. We seem to play better defense when we’re knocking down shots. I hate that it that’s way, but that’s the way it usually rolls. But we’ve got to defend and rebound if we want to stick around.

The Wolfpack has been a third-quarter team all season, with NC State outscoring teams by a blistering margin of 503-358 in middle frames this year.

As was the case in Round One on Sunday, the Wolfpack’s big third quarter set the stage for NC State to cruise to victory, as the Wolfpack’s lead never dipped below eight points in the final quarter and sent the Wolfpack into the Sweet 16. 

“I think if we do the small things like rebounding, boxing out and doing what we can control, I think we can go far in this tournament,” Brown-Turner said. 


 

 
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