To say that luck wasn’t on the side of the NC State women’s basketball team this year would be an understatement. Starting before the season had even kicked off, the Wolfpack lost player after player to season-ending knee injuries, finishing the year out with four players, three of which were starters, sidelined for the year.
Despite that, the Pack rallied to put together a marvelous season, making the Sweet 16 for the second straight year while finishing 28-6, the second-most wins in program history. As the Pack lost key players, others stepped up and filled in seamlessly, and it led to one of the most successful seasons the program has ever seen.
“I think the whole body of work, you have to be really proud of these players and all they have been through,” said head coach Wes Moore. “They could have really hung their heads and got down four different occasions, when you had some key players go out, and they didn’t. Maybe they mourned a little bit for a day or two, but they bounced right back and kept coming. I’m proud of that.”
The injuries started coming leading into the first game of the season, as the Pack’s starting point guard, graduate Kaila Ealey, tore her ACL and was ruled out for the season. Ealey started every game for the Pack the previous season, running the offense at the one guard.
However, the Pack didn’t let the injury to its starting point guard stop it from coming out of the gate strong. Instead, NC State started the season on a program-record 21-game win streak, and was the last undefeated Division I team on either the men’s or women’s side.
The Wolfpack had another blow after its first ACC game of the season, a 63-51 win over Duke to push the Pack to 14-0. Redshirt junior Grace Hunter, who was leading NC State with 14.6 points per game, suffered a season-ending injury.
A few games later redshirt senior Armani Hawkins, who was averaging over four points per game off the Wolfpack bench, went down for the season as well. A month after that, junior Erika Cassell, the Pack’s starting center, suffered an injury in a win over Florida State that ended her season.
After suffering four major injuries, the Pack didn’t collapse. It went on to finish third in a brutally tough ACC, making the ACC Tournament semifinal. NC State earned a three-seed in the NCAA Tournament, hosting its first two games in Reynolds Coliseum before giving a very good Iowa team a fight in the Sweet 16.
A big part of the Pack’s ability to work through its injuries was the leadership and play of graduate guard Kiara Leslie, who really stepped up for the Wolfpack following Hunter’s injury. In the Pack’s final 20 games, Leslie averaged 17.8 points per game, including a 31-point performance in NC State’s first game without Hunter.
“We just stuck together and played for one another each and every night,” Leslie said. “I think that’s what helped us get this far and throughout the season.”
Another experienced player that stepped up for the Pack was junior guard Aislinn Konig, who took over most of Ealey’s point guard duties for the season. A natural two-guard, Konig transitioned seamlessly into being the Pack’s main ball handler, and finished the year averaging over 3.8 assists per game.
A veteran starting point guard is perhaps the player a team least wants to lose heading into a season, but Konig’s ability to take over and lead the Wolfpack offense helped Moore’s team to compete and win games all season.
While Leslie and Konig were expected to be stars for NC State this year, two other players on the team broke out in big ways after getting opportunities following injuries. Sophomore guard Kai Crutchfield and freshman center Elissa Cunane were fantastic for the Wolfpack down the stretch, with both playing much bigger roles than they probably expected.
Crutchfield stepped into the starting lineup following Hunter’s injury, and became a big part of NC State’s offense. She finished the year averaging 6.2 points per game, but averaged 7.6 in her 20 games as a starter.
Cunane broke out in a massive way late in the season for the Wolfpack, becoming NC State’s go-to scorer down the stretch after filling Cassell’s spot in the lineup. Cunane scored 25 points in the Florida State game that Cassell got injured in, and she took off from there.
Over her 11 games as a starter, Cunane averaged 16.7 points and 8.6 rebounds per game, becoming a problem that other teams couldn’t solve. While the injuries obviously were an unfortunate part of NC State’s season, they did open the door up for Cunane and Crutchfield to shine.
“It was able to instill a lot of confidence in a lot of different people that had to step up,” Konig said. “You had Elissa who obviously blossomed when she had to come in, and Kai who was a huge factor for us. That gives us a lot of depth and a lot of confidence as a team, because you know you can weather the storm. If something doesn’t go our way, we can still find a way to win.”
NC State’s season came to an end in the Sweet 16 this past Saturday, but the future is brighter than ever for a Wolfpack team that, as Konig said, was able to “weather the storm.” The Wolfpack moves forward into next season with most of its roster back, some key players returning from injuries and a recruiting class that might be the best in program history.
For the Pack, the fight and resiliency that it showed through the 2018-19 campaign is something it can learn from and carry into what should be a fantastic 2019-20 for the program.
“The way that we were able to fight through the adversity we had, I think a lot of teams would have packed up and said ‘you know what, we’re just going to take what we can get,’” Konig said. “We decided to keep fighting and the goals have changed, and I think that’s the type of success we can achieve next year with, we’re praying, a completely healthy team all through the season.”