On Monday afternoon, the NC State women’s basketball team found out that it had moved up in the national AP poll from No. 7 to No. 4, which is the highest rank the team has had in 20 years. However, to keep its rank and all but secure an ACC regular-season title, the Wolfpack (22-1, 11-1 ACC) will have to defend its home court Thursday night against conference juggernaut No. 9 Louisville.
The Wolfpack may have caught Louisville (21-3, 10-2 ACC) at the perfect time of the year. The Cardinals are on a two-game losing streak in ACC play, falling at home to No. 14 Florida State and on the road against unranked Syracuse. While Louisville will be desperate for a win, NC State, currently on an eight-game winning streak, will look to keep the bleeding going for the Cardinals.
Offensively, NC State and Louisville both average 74 points per game, good for second in the ACC. A big part to keeping the Cardinals off the scoreboard will be NC State’s game plan on guard Dana Evans, who averages 18.5 points per game. Evans is lethal from behind the arc, leading the conference in 3-pointers made with 70, and a 3-point field goal percentage of 41.8%. If the Wolfpack leaves her open a few times, expect something similar to what NC State fans saw Louisville men’s player Ryan McMahon do inside PNC Arena earlier this month.
Defensively, either junior guard Kai Crutchfield or senior guard Aislinn Konig will likely be the primary on-ball defender on Evans. The duo of Wolfpack guards has a three-inch and four-inch height advantage, respectively, on the 5-foot-6 Evans, so NC State will look to use that to its advantage when defending her.
Another player who can get hot for the Cardinals is Jazmine Jones, who averages 13.9 points per game. Unlike Evans, Jones is not a great 3-point shooter, but the 6-foot guard likes to attack the rim. This is a player NC State cannot forget about when zoning in on Evans, as Jones has gone off for over 20 points six times this year.
Louisville and NC State rank second and third, respectively, in assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference. This shows a lot about how the guards play for both teams.
If NC State wants to win this game, it will look to its leading scorer and ACC leading rebounder sophomore center Elissa Cunane, who is averaging 17 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-5 workhorse down low will go up against 6-foot-4 senior Kylie Shook all night long in Reynolds. Shook is the all-time leader in blocks for Louisville. Look for Cunane to be aggressive early on and try to get Shook in foul trouble, similar to what she did against Janelle Bailey, when NC State beat UNC-Chapel Hill one month ago.
If the Cardinals zone in on Cunane, she will not hesitate to kick it out to perimeter shooters, Konig, Crutchfield, and freshman wing Jakia-Brown Turner. This is something the Wolfpack has had a ton of success with so far this season.
“You pass it inside, and that opens up outside shots,” Cunane said after the win over Duke. “Whoever they choose not to guard, we just burn them on it.”
If this game is close down the stretch, it will be nothing new for NC State. In the big moments, NC State has gotten crucial buckets from Crutchfield, Cunane and most recently against Duke, redshirt senior guard Grace Hunter. No matter the situation, the Wolfpack has found a go-to player to make the big play.
NC State has lost five in a row against the Cardinals, including last year in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, but with the way NC State is rolling, and the two-game skid the Cardinals are on, this could be the year NC State head coach Wes Moore’s team gets the win and climbs to the top of the ACC women's basketball mountain.
Tip-off Thursday at Reynolds Coliseum is scheduled for 8 p.m., with the game being aired nationally on the ACC Network. Follow @TechSports on twitter, for live updates from the top-10 matchup.