The NC State women’s basketball team defeated eighth-seeded South Florida 79-67 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament behind dominance from its sophomore class. This win means that NC State will see its third straight Sweet 16 appearance.
Once again, the third quarter was go time for the Pack as it has been all year long. NC State outscored the Bulls 24-11 in the third, adding to the team’s plus-145 in third quarters on the season. Sophomore forward Jada Boyd was on fire once again in the game, adding seven of her 18 points and five of her 10 boards in the third. Boyd started in place of the injured senior forward Kayla Jones.
“We’re very blessed and fortunate to have Jada Boyd,” said head coach Wes Moore. “I’ve said all year long that we’ve got six starters. With Kayla Jones out, Jada Boyd steps right in. It does hurt us a little bit depthwise, and like I said, [Jones] does so many things. It’s hard to replace that. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have coming in and filling in like that than Jada Boyd.”
All five of the Pack’s starters scored in double figures, with Boyd and fellow sophomore, wing Jakia Brown-Turner, leading the way with 18 and 19, respectively. Graduate guard Raina Perez finished with 12 points and four assists, junior center Elissa Cunane had 12 points and 11 rebounds, and senior guard Kai Crutchfield added 11 points on three 3-pointers and six assists.
“[Brown-Turner] was getting to where she was passing up 3s and looking to attack,” Moore said. “We need her to knock down 3s because that creates spacing for our offense. It gets people off [Elissa Cunane]. And, of course, Kai Crutchfield’s been doing a great job of that out here as well, shooting the heck out of it. But we need to get Jakia going, and it was good to see her hit two out of four today. We need that to have some balance in our offense. It was a big lift for us.”
In what seems to be a recurring theme for the team, the Wolfpack struggled in the first half against a resilient South Florida team. The injury to Jones caused Moore to turn to less-used lineups, including freshman guard Genesis Bryant and redshirt freshman forward Elle Sutphin.
Bryant scored nine points in the team’s first-round win and continually impressed in the practices leading up to the tournament, according to Moore, but Sutphin’s inclusion was more surprising. Sutphin was used to stagger Boyd’s minutes in the absence of Jones, since sophomore center Camille Hobby can’t play effectively next to Cunane without clogging the paint. Sutphin finished with a solid four points in limited action.
“Elle Sutphin did a great job when she went in there and knocked down a couple of shots,” Moore said. “So we’re having to play a Genesis Bryant and Elle Sutphin; we’re having to play some people that maybe haven’t played a whole lot during the season, but due to these injuries and different things, foul trouble, they’re getting opportunities, and I thought they’ve held up really well.”
The entirety of the first half was a back-and-forth affair, with five ties and 13 lead changes. However, USF seriously outgunned the Pack from the 3-point line, hitting six of such shots compared to the Pack’s two.
The Pack did a solid job of getting South Florida’s Bethy Mununga, who averages 10 points a game, into foul trouble, but Elena Tsineke and Elisa Pinzan made up for it. The duo had 20 combined points for the Bulls and together had four of the team’s six first-half 3-pointers, leading to a 36-35 first-half deficit for NC State.
However, it was once again the tale of two halves for the Pack’s opponents. While South Florida shot 46.4% from the floor and 42.9% from deep in the first half, it connected on just 27.8% of its shots in the second. On the other hand, the Pack shot nearly 50% from the floor to end the game.
South Florida went down by as much as seven early on in the third quarter but cut the lead to just 47-45 with 5:30 remaining in the period. This prompted the Wolfpack to go on a 12-2 run to end the quarter led by Boyd and Cunane, who joined Brown-Turner in double figures. Meanwhile, Crutchfield added a couple of baskets, including a 3-pointer in the clutch, to pad the Pack’s lead.
“It’s definitely the halftime speech from coach Moore,” Brown-Turner said. “I always tell my teammates the first three minutes of the third quarter are the most important. Get out and get some stops, so defense created offense for us, and that’s how we were able to get up.”
The fourth quarter was more of an even battle between the two teams, but NC State’s huge third-quarter run allowed it to hold on and advance to the Sweet 16 for the third straight time.
“I’m just happy that we made it here; I’m ready to play in the Sweet 16 and take every game at a time so we’re able to win,” Brown-Turner said. “I think if we do the small things like rebounding, boxing out and doing what we can control, I think we can go far in this tournament.”
Next up, the Wolfpack will take on the winner of the game between fourth-seeded Indiana and 12th-seeded Belmont. The matchup between the Pack and the winner of that game will face off in the Sweet 16 on Saturday, March 27.
“Again, it gets tougher every step, obviously,” Moore said. “This year, I knew there was going to be more upsets than ever because the top-16 seeds didn’t get to host those first two games. You’re playing teams that are capable of getting on a roll, getting hot and beating you...The rest of the teams that are left on that board are all pretty good. You just can’t afford to take a day off. You’ve got to be ready and hope you’re shooting the ball well.”