COLUMBIA, S.C. — The No. 8 NC State women’s basketball team conquered No. 1 South Carolina by a score of 54-46 in an upset win in Colonial Life Arena on Thursday, Dec. 3.
With under 30 seconds remaining in the game, senior forward Kayla Jones hit arguably the clutchest shot of her career, a 3-pointer after a timeout by head coach Wes Moore. Jones was huge for the Pack throughout the game as she took the brunt of the scoring load in the first half and into the later parts of the game, finishing with a team-high 16 points and 12 rebounds on 6-of-13 shooting from the floor.
“We can compete with the best of the best,” Jones said. “Of course every team is good, and we have to break down film and don’t take anyone lightly, just play our game. Coach Moore prepares us to be a great team. We play to make ourselves better, and we know we are playing for something bigger each and every game we play.”
Entering the game, South Carolina had won 29 straight games and had home-court advantage in the game. That was no problem for Moore, who led his team to victory in spite of missing sophomore forward Jada Boyd due to injury.
“Couldn’t be prouder of the team, this group of girls,” Moore said. “We didn’t shoot the ball very well, which we normally do; we really struggled. And you have to give South Carolina a lot of credit for that and their defense. Just so proud of the way we battled. We lost Jada Boyd this week...so we really came down here short-handed as far as experience goes, so I played them a lot of minutes...in a game like this, we needed to go to our veterans...proud of the effort they gave. It’s a good win for our program.”
Star junior center Elissa Cunane had a rough first half after going 0-for-7 shooting but ended up getting into motion in the third quarter and finished the game with 14 points and six rebounds. Cunane and Jones showed what makes them so integral to this program, as each had seemingly endless clutch plays for the Pack.
“I thought Elissa [Cunane] in the second half made some big buckets for us,” Moore said. “Boston is a tough matchup, but I thought Elissa [Cunane] came through late in the game when we needed her to.”
Sophomore wing Jakia Brown-Turner was a major factor for the Pack throughout the game, stepping up for a struggling Cunane in the first half and finishing with a double-double. Brown-Turner ended with 11 points and 12 rebounds, four of which were on the offensive glass. Cunane and Jones finished with three offensive boards each as well.
“Jakia [Brown-Turner], she’s somebody we’re gonna lean on a lot in the next few years, so I’m really proud of her as well,” Moore said. “I’m really proud of Kayla Jones and Jakia [Brown-Turner] and what they were able to do.”
Graduate guard Raina Perez was especially impressive late in the game and noticeably hustled all game long. With around three minutes remaining in the game, the guard hit a clutch 3-pointer to give the Pack a 46-44 lead in her first start for the Wolfpack in place of Boyd. Perez has made her presence felt early in the season for the Pack and played 36 minutes with no turnovers despite full-court press all game long from the Gamecocks.
“I’m so thankful and we’re so blessed that [Perez] came to NC State,” Moore said. “Because she was a grad transfer, player of the year in the Big West conference for a team, I think finished sixth, so that’s amazing. We lost Ace Konig, who was our starting point guard the last three years, and Kaila Ealey, another one that started several games...we needed point guard experience…It’s a blessing to have her here; she’s such a smart player, and she’s a pro. She prepares, she’s focused. Another one I’m real proud of in her first start.”
Despite shooting 29.4% from the floor and 23.5% from 3, the Wolfpack was able to upset the top team in the country and played incredible defense all game long. The Wolfpack held South Carolina to 27% from the floor and 16.7% from deep and only allowed the ‘Cocks to score 46 points.
“We looked at the film, we broke it down and saw that we had a good chance,” Jones said. “We knew it was going to be a good game, and it’s just like any other team, you have to compete. If you come out and give your hardest like coach Moore says, you can win the game...So it’s always about being ready, staying ready.”
The first half was sloppy and gritty for both teams, as neither could see shots fall, which seemed to be the trend all night long. Each team committed at least turnovers before the half, and neither team was shooting over 25% from the floor. While the Pack offense struggled mightily, having one sequence in which it failed to score for over 10 consecutive in-game minutes, South Carolina was failing to get anything to go under the basket, even with Cunane struggling early.
“We really struggled offensively, I’ll give South Carolina a lot of credit for that,” Moore said. “So we had to do a really good job on the defensive end and do a really good job on the boards. And Kayla Jones, I’m so proud of her. She has knee pain about every day, and for her to go out there and play that kind of game and those kinds of minutes, is just amazing. Happy for her.”
NC State took a 21-20 lead at the halfway point, being led by Jones and Brown-Turner, who had 15 points combined. Brown-Turner in particular flashed her excellent versatility and value for this team by snagging eight rebounds, something the Pack desperately needed as Cunane went to the bench.
The third quarter was a much different story, with the Pack scoring 15 points and getting Cunane into rhythm. Getting into that offensive rhythm in the third was huge, as it was the difference between allowing South Carolina to go on a run or to trade blows, which the Pack did.
As the game progressed, the Wolfpack starters made continuously great plays after South Carolina would score a couple baskets in a row. Perez, Jones, Brown-Turner and Cunane combined for 52 of the team’s 54 total points, showcasing that the Pack has great star power to lean on when a rotation player falls.
“I feel it’s a huge win,” Jones said. “We just beat the No. 1 team and we are what, No. 8? So I feel like it’s huge. Coach Moore, he’s a great coach and our coaching staff and I love my teammates. I feel like we could compete with anyone.”
The win will go down as one of the greatest in the regular season of NC State women’s basketball history and is one of Moore’s most impressive showings. It isn’t often that a team’s best player doesn’t hit a field goal in the first half against the No. 1 team in the nation and said team comes out on top. It’s unheard of and yet, Moore got the job done.
“We’re going to enjoy it for 24, maybe 48 hours…” Moore said. “It’s early in the year, obviously I’m really proud, this is a game that will get attention, but it’s not March and we realize it’s just a game that we can hopefully build on and gain some confidence from especially on the road. It’s our first road game...For us to come in here with 3,500 fans, I’m proud of them from that standpoint too...playing the No. 1 team in the country in a road environment. Just so many things to be proud of for these young ladies and how hard they fought.”
NC State will get a chance to add to its win streak — it hasn’t lost a game since Feb. 24 — when it takes on Coastal Carolina inside Reynolds Coliseum on Sunday, Dec. 6 at 2 p.m.