Elissa Cunane was never supposed to be thrust into the spotlight her freshman year.
As the second option off the bench to start the season, Cunane got her fair share of playing time but wasn’t a main option and had the benefit of matching up against opposing teams’ benches as well.
Then, starting center Erika Cassell tore her ACL in an early February game at Florida State, and Cunane burst onto the scene with 25 points and eight rebounds.
She never looked back from there, instantly becoming a starter and dominating ACC play the rest of the season, averaging 17.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game through the end of the season.
“Even when I wasn’t starting, I prepared every game like I was going to play,” Cunane said. “So even when I was starting, nothing really changed. I still had the same mentality to help my team win.”
Now, the 6-foot-5 sophomore is a preseason All-ACC selection and is widely regarded as one of the best centers in the country. She’s no longer taking the ACC by storm; teams are going to be game planning for her now.
“I think I’m definitely not going to sneak up on anyone like I did last year,” Cunane said. “All teams are going to be focused on me a little more this year, and that this does kind of put a target on me, as far as offensively.”
In the blink of an eye and the flash of an injury, Cunane went from a wide-eyed freshman whose minutes per game had gradually decreased at the beginning ACC play to a fearsome center who could dominate even the best competition, scoring 28 points against defending champion Notre Dame.
And yet, scary as it may be for the rest of the ACC, Cunane’s game last season was far from fully developed. Although she did go from attempting one 3-pointer in her first 18 games to attempting 11 in her final 16 games, Cunane recognized that adding outside shooting to her game could make her nearly unstoppable.
“Most definitely I’ve been working on my outside game so that it’s harder for defenders to guard [me],” Cunane said. “I think [shooting 3s] makes us more versatile. So if I’m the trail and can knock down the 3 … I think being able to do both just gives us an advantage.”
In addition to her outside shooting, over the offseason, Cunane has been working to fine-tune smaller aspects of her game that she struggled with last year against tough opponents.
“I think offensively just taking care of the ball and cutting down on my turnovers and just taking my time,” Cunane said. “Then defensively, guarding better on the perimeter and inside without fouling.”
If Cunane is able to consistently stretch her game to the 3-point line and fix her minor issues, she seems likely to fulfill a mini prophecy that Louisville head coach Jeff Walz gave about her after Cunane torched the Cardinals and ACC All-Tournament forward Sam Fuehring for 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting in the ACC Tournament semifinals. After the game, which Louisville ended up winning 78-68, Walz proclaimed that he’d be “shocked” if Cunane didn’t end up as an All-American eventually.
NC State head coach Wes Moore isn’t going to get ahead of himself in his expectations for Cunane’s development and knows there is always room for improvement, but he knew early on when recruiting her that her potential was limitless.
“We knew she was going to be a great player,” Moore said. “She still has a long way to go, still a lot of things to get better at, but she definitely has the tools and potential to be a special player for us.”
As a freshman last season, Cunane relied heavily on the veteran leadership of a squad that had just advanced to the Sweet 16 the year prior. Leaning on veterans such as former forward DD Rogers and Cassell, Cunane listened and learned. Now, after playing over 33 minutes per game from Feb. 7 on, Cunane is a veteran herself and is ready to assume a mentorship role.
“Coming in as a freshman, I knew I needed help,” Cunane said. “So now looking down at them, I know they need help. I think everybody on the team needs to help each other out.”
With the added responsibility of shouldering a bigger load on and off the court comes a mountain of added pressure. But Cunane is built to handle such a role, and Moore isn’t worried about her ability to handle it.
“She’s a kid that doesn’t let a whole lot phase her,” Moore said. “I don’t think she lets things get to her a whole lot. She’s very intelligent, so she’s able to handle the mental aspects of things pretty well.”
The NC State women’s basketball team is one of the most talented teams in the country, and that’s beginning to emerge in the media. NC State was picked by both the Blue Ribbon Panel and the ACC head coaches to finish second in the ACC this season behind Louisville. Cunane was selected to both the Blue Ribbon Panel’s and the head coaches’ preseason All-ACC Team, while senior guard Aislinn Konig was also selected to the coaches’ preseason All-ACC Team.
The preseason accolades and expectations are racking up for the Wolfpack, and at the heart of player, media and fan expectations is Cunane. But in a manner eerily similar to her coach, Cunane isn’t letting the outside noise affect her and her team’s preparation.
“I think we all know that no awards are given out in October or November,” Cunane said. “We’re not going to sneak up on anybody like we did last year and surprise them, so we really just need to lock down and do all the little things.”