CHARLOTTE — Last season, the NC State women’s basketball team took down two No. 1-ranked teams on the road and captured its second consecutive ACC Championship, en route to earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
The Wolfpack won its first-round matchup but at a cost, as graduate forward Kayla Jones went down with a knee injury, marking the end of her involvement in the tournament. In the second round, the Pack managed to beat a South Florida team that hung tough in the first half, but NC State was bounced by Indiana in the next round.
Feeling there was unfinished business after the injury and early NCAA Tournament let down, Jones decided to use her extra year of eligibility to return for one last ride with the Wolfpack.
“I want to at least try the WNBA, but then I got hurt,” Jones said. “So I wouldn’t have been able to give my full effort. … My decision was really made for me at that point. So I really wasn’t stressed. I was like, ‘I have to come back now.’ And I'm glad because I feel like we want another run at it, you know? We were right there. Top four. No. 1 seed.”
Jones said she underwent surgery in late April following her injury, but is feeling good now and has been able to practice with the team.
“We’ll be having another little scrimmage tonight so they're gonna let me play a little bit of minutes so we'll see,” Jones said. “It's gonna be good to get back out there.”
Jones is one of three players on the team who chose to use their extra year of eligibility and return for a final season. Combined with the other veterans, Jones forms the heart of the Pack’s leadership.
“KJ is huge,” said senior center Elissa Cunane. “Even with her being out at the end of last year, but even on the court too, she's always gonna bring energy. You get an and-1 like some people might be clapping, like KJ is on the sidelines screaming for you. So she's literally like my biggest hype man. She's gonna be everybody's biggest fan on the team and support us in any way we need.”
While Cunane earns much of the plaudits from analysts, and deservedly so, Jones’ impact cannot go understated, with the Jamesville, North Carolina native being described as the “glue” by head coach Wes Moore on more than one occasion.
“She's the consummate teammate,” Moore said. “Tries to make everybody around her better. I think when she rebounds and is able to take off with it, I think that's our best transition, really. So she handles the ball, makes good decisions. She's developed a 3-point range. She gives you some size to match up inside a little bit, but then can also step out on the perimeter. So she's kind of a hybrid player for us, again, somebody that doesn't have to have the limelight.”
Averaging 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists last season, Jones contributes on the court just as much as she does off it. She’s no stranger to showing up in the big games either, combining for 21 points and 25 rebounds in those two wins over No. 1-ranked teams.
With the Pack’s roster as deep as it's ever been, returning all the big contributors from last season strengthening that core with transfers and talented freshmen. Add the back-to-back ACC titles and the Pack has some lofty expectations placed on it this season. But that pressure doesn’t matter for Jones and her teammates.
“[We are] really just living in the moment,” Jones said. “And that's our thing this year and that's mine for sure, because last year I felt like I've been so worried about, ‘Okay, what's next?’ For this year, I really want to live in the moment and enjoy my team, and just complete those goals that we have. So, no pressure.”