Johnson takes a shot

Sophomore guard Diamond Johnson prepares to take a shot at Reynolds Coliseum during the Wolfpack’s exhibition game against UNC Pembroke on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021. Johnson scored 18 points and had 5 rebounds. The Wolfpack beat UNC Pembroke 92-36

The No. 5 NC State women’s basketball team steamrolled the UNC-Pembroke Braves 92-36 in the Pack’s first and only exhibition game inside Reynolds Coliseum prior to the start of the regular season.

All offseason long, plenty of praise was given to incoming transfer sophomore guards Diamond Johnson and Madison Hayes. The duo looks primed to deliver on that hype after combining for 27 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists and five steals. 

Hayes had a particularly excellent and-one conversion in the third quarter, amping up the Wolfpack faithful. On the other hand, Johnson flashed the playmaking qualities of a star and led the Pack in scoring, finishing with 18 points on 7 of 12 shooting from the floor.

“In practice, I’m usually like the energy person,” Johnson said. “I hype everyone up. So I think that’s what we need for our players to get confidence, to be able to shoot the ball and really just having the confidence to play. So I think that’s a big piece that me and [Hayes] can bring to this team.”

The Braves had no answer for head coach Wes Moore’s classic full-court press, looking absolutely outclassed every step of the way. Despite an irregular Wolfpack rotation due to the exhibition matchup, Pembroke committed 12 more fouls and had eight more turnovers than NC State. It gets uglier from there. The Wolfpack outrebounded the Braves 51-25 and had 22 assists compared to Pembroke’s eight.

Interestingly, with graduate forward Kayla Jones set for limited minutes and junior forward Jada Boyd out for the contest, Moore opted to go with a starting lineup consisting of guards graduate Raina Perez, Johnson and graduate Kai Crutchfield. Junior wing Jakia Brown-Turner was the fourth guard, though with her size she was able to play bigger and secured nine rebounds in the contest.

“We've been working a lot on four guards,” Moore said. “It is concerning at times because you are small and trying to match up, especially when you're playing some of the top teams in the country and they're going to be very long and very athletic. But at the same time, it puts them in a position where they may have a hard time matching up. So we definitely want to be prepared to do that. And we'll see how it goes. We're gonna try to evaluate our starting lineup, maybe fluidly this year, because we may just base it on who played well the outing before and go with that. So hopefully we'll keep everybody hungry.”

That trio got off to a hot start, scoring all eight of the Pack’s first points headed by Crutchfield’s back-to-back 3-pointers. Johnson scored the other early bucket after impressively shaking off a nearby defender. And when the triad of guards sat, sophomore guard Genesis Bryant was there to pick up the slack, scoring eight quick points including two 3s.

As for the Pack’s injured forwards in Jones and Boyd, Moore said he sees Jones coming back in a limited fashion soon and Boyd returning further down the line. 

“[Jones is] still gonna be limited,” Moore said. “But trying to ease her back into a little bit and just patellar tendon is a tough one to come back from so still trying to get there. And Jada, we're probably still about a month away, probably the end of November. So we'll see how that progresses.”

Although the opening minutes of the first quarter was characterized by sloppy play, NC State quickly went on a 16-2 run after Pembroke’s first 3-pointer and never looked back. And while the Pack’s 13-point lead to end the first quarter was impressive, nothing quite stood out like NC State’s defensive effort in the second.

In the second quarter, the Wolfpack allowed Pembroke to score just two points, holding it to just 1 of 15 from the field, a horrendous 6.7% clip from the Braves. UNC-Pembroke again scored 12 points in the third quarter but couldn’t gain any more ground back, allowing NC State to combine for 49 points in the second half. The Braves ended the game shooting just 24% from the floor.

The blowout gave Moore a chance to give younger players on the roster the spotlight including the five-star freshman trio of center Sophie Hart and guards Aziaha James and Jessica Timmons. James, in particular, stood out with an all-around game. Though she missed a couple of free throws and went just 2 for 7 from the floor, James finished the game with four points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals.

Though the Wolfpack handled business, as was expected, there are still some areas NC State can afford to clean up in advance of next Tuesday’s matchup with No. 1 South Carolina. For starters, the Pack shot just 48.6% from the field and 32.3% from deep. Those shooting numbers aren’t bad but the Wolfpack is a much better 3-point shooting team than it showed in the exhibition.

Secondly, NC State had a couple of stints in which it sputtered out offensively, going scoreless for a handful of moments, including a third-quarter stretch in which it went 0 for 7.

“I saw defensively we didn't sometimes have the urgency we needed,” Moore said. “We didn't avoid picks. … I thought Pembroke did a really good job of picking for each other and getting each other open. And we had trouble with that at times. … So a lot of things I say we can clean up and get better at. Tonight we can get away with it but next week and with the schedule we have, you're going to get exposed pretty quickly if you don't do the little things that make you better.”

The Pack will open its regular season against No. 1 South Carolina next Tuesday, Nov. 9 at 5 p.m. at Reynolds Coliseum.