The NC State women’s basketball team capped off its stellar season with an ACC title. Although its season was cut short in the form of a canceled NCAA Tournament, the Wolfpack finished just two wins shy of the program record for wins in a season and won three games in three days to triumph in the ACC Tournament. Here’s how the team lived up to preseason expectations.
How would the freshmen fit in?
Head coach Wes Moore inked one of the best recruiting classes in NC State women’s basketball history in 2018, securing two five-star recruits in wing Jakia Brown-Turner and forward Jada Boyd. Joining the five-star duo were top-100 forward Camille Hobby, guard Kendal Moore and forward Elle Sutphin, who reclassified into the class of 2019.
It was fair to wonder how the freshmen would live up to the hype considering Moore typically doesn’t give big minutes to freshmen, but this group blew expectations out of the water. Although Sutphin redshirted and Hobby and Moore each saw limited action, Brown-Turner and Boyd cemented themselves as future stars, with both being named to the All-ACC Freshman Team.
Brown-Turner started every game except for senior night and saved one of her best performances of the season for last, a 14-point, 10-rebound outing in the ACC Tournament championship game. Meanwhile, Boyd provided a jolt of energy every time she came off the bench, always crashing the boards for offensive rebounds or powering her way to an and-1 opportunity. Brown-Turner quickly established herself as a key player, and Boyd worked her way into the rotation as ACC play picked up, forcing Moore’s hand as she earned more minutes.
Could Cunane take the next step?
After being inserted into the starting lineup halfway through her freshman year after a series of injuries, sophomore center Elissa Cunane burst onto the scene, averaging 16.7 points and 8.6 rebounds per game the rest of the way. Going into her sophomore year, she was no longer the upstart young buck, but now the focal point of every team’s defensive game plan. If NC State was going to improve on a record-breaking 2018-19 season, Cunane was going to have to take the proverbial next step.
The 6-foot-5, Summerfield, NC native did just that, finishing the regular season averaging a double-double of 16.5 points and 10 rebounds per game. A Lisa Leslie Award and Wooden Award finalist, Cunane dominated teams on a nightly basis, racking up 14 double-doubles on the season.
Cunane beat teams with her offensive prowess on the block, her deft touch from beyond the arc and her monster rebounding. With 10 20-point games, five games with at least 15 rebounds, and a 45% clip from downtown, Cunane made sure everyone knew the stellar second half of her freshman season was no fluke.
Who would fill Kiara Leslie’s shoes?
After leading scorer and WNBA first-round pick Kiara Leslie graduated, there was a clear hole in the Wolfpack’s rotation. Leslie was the team’s best player in her two seasons as a starter, and as the primary scorer, a terrific rebounder and a solid playmaker, the question of who would fill the All-ACC wing’s shoes was a serious issue.
The short answer? No one.
Everyone contributed to make up for the loss of Leslie. Brown-Turner stepped right in as an all-around wing, junior Kayla Jones took over secondary playmaking duties and hauled in over seven rebounds per game, and Jones, Cunane, senior guard Aislinn Konig and junior guard Kai Crutchfield all increased their scoring outputs. No one player filled Leslie’s shoes, but a handful of players all added to their games to fill her void.
What’s this team’s ceiling?
A question that wasn’t able to be answered in full, but one that was well on its way to being established. Heading into the season, the possibility of an ACC championship, a 30-win season and an Elite Eight appearance were all on the table. The ACC championship was accomplished, and had the NCAA Tournament not been canceled, a 30-win season was all but assured and a run to the Elite Eight was in the cards.
With 28 wins, a second-place finish in the regular season, a No. 4 national ranking and, of course, an ACC championship, the NC State women’s basketball team was able to partially answer that question: The ceiling was establishing itself as one of the best teams in program history.