NC State women’s basketball superstar center Elissa Cunane was named a finalist for the Lisa Leslie Award Friday afternoon. This award, presented by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, is given to the top center in women’s college basketball.
Cunane, who is averaging a double-double with 16.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, has been one of the best players in college basketball this season after breaking out over the second half of last season. The 6-foot-5 sophomore is shooting over 55% from the field and 79% from the free-throw line, and is even capable of stepping out and knocking down a 3-pointer, with 11 made 3s on a 44% clip from deep.
Named after Lisa Leslie, one of the greatest women’s basketball players of all time and a four-year starter at the University of Southern California, the award is part of the Hoophall awards, with one being given to each of the nation’s best point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center.
The Lisa Leslie Award has seen past winners vaulted to the forefront of women’s college basketball. The last two winners of the award, Megan Gustafson of Iowa in 2019 and A’Ja Wilson of South Carolina in 2018, also each won the Naismith College Player of the Year.
Cunane actually faced off against Gustafson last year, matching up with Iowa’s behemoth center in the Wolfpack’s Sweet 16 game of the NCAA Tournament, which it eventually lost. Just a freshman against a grizzled veteran senior, Cunane showed her stardom and more, scoring 14 points and hauling in 11 rebounds (four offensive) despite battling down low with Gustafson all game.
The recognition as one of the country’s best centers is a worthy one for Cunane, who has dominated all season. She’s had no shortage of monster performances, such as a 28-point, 16-rebound game in a win over Elon; a 22-point, 17-rebound game in a revenge win over North Carolina; and an electric showing in a primetime win over No. 13 Florida State, when she scored 20 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and rejected five shots while matched up with Florida State star big Kiah Gillespie.
Just a sophomore, and with fewer than 40 career starts under her belt, Cunane hasn’t even sniffed her ceiling yet. Her recognition as one of the NCAA’s best centers is just the first of a future full of potential hardware for the small-town superstar, nicknamed “Big Smile” by ESPN’s Debbie Antonelli for her habit of always having a cheesy grin on her face.
After 20 players were placed on the preseason watchlist, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, in partnership with Hoophall, whittled down the worthy candidates to 10. Other finalists for the award include Baylor’s Queen Egbo, UConn’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa and South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, among others.
The winner of the Lisa Leslie Award will be announced on live television April 10 on ESPN2. This year’s winners will be presented by the Hall of Famers on ESPN’s annual “The College Basketball Awards” award show.