The No. 5 NC State women’s basketball team fell to the No. 1 South Carolina Gamecocks 66-57 inside Reynolds Coliseum on Tuesday, Nov. 9 in the Pack’s home opener.
It was a low-scoring affair, similar to NC State’s win in Columbia, South Carolina last season. This time, however, the Wolfpack was on the other side of the disappointing home loss. NC State had just two players in double figures, graduate guard Raina Perez and junior wing Jakia Brown-Turner, who finished with 18 points apiece.
“Gotta give South Carolina all the credit,” said head coach Wes Moore. “That’s why they’re No. 1 in the country. They just really defensively took us out of anything. We looked very lost out there most of the night. … We ended up, maybe because of that defense, we ended up settling too much for jump shots and step-backs. You look at the stats, we shot six free throws, they shot 19, and I think that was just because again, they were attacking the rim and we ended up settling a lot.”
South Carolina guard Zia Cooke had a tremendous outing against the Wolfpack, leading the Gamecocks in scoring with 17 points. Cooke was particularly effective in the second half, scoring nine of her points in that period and silencing the Wolfpack faithful any time NC State tried to make a run back into things.
It was a particularly quiet night for the Wolfpack’s star player, senior center Elissa Cunane. Cunane didn’t score a basket until midway through the third quarter and ended the game with just eight points on 4 of 11 shooting.
It didn’t help matters that Cunane got into foul trouble almost immediately, being pulled for junior center Camille Hobby, who struggled against forward Aliyah Boston. Cunane did have two steals and two assists but stayed in foul trouble all night, ending the night with four fouls and two turnovers.
Sophomore guard Diamond Johnson, the crown jewel of the offseason, had a rough first outing with the Wolfpack. The transfer guard out of Rutgers finished the game with just four points on 2 of 12 shooting, a less-than-ideal game for a player renowned for her scoring chops. It wasn’t just Johnson though. Outside of Perez and Brown-Turner, no Pack player had more than six points until the last four minutes of the game.
“I thought Jakia [Brown-Turner] and Raina [Perez] both had great nights, hit some tough shots, kept us in the ballgame,” Moore said. “We’ve just got to get some other people [going]. We’re still a work in progress. We added some talent, we have [Kayla Jones] still coming off a surgery, that sort of thing. Probably not a great night to play the number one team in the country, but we’re excited we got the opportunity.”
The first half of the game was characterized by ugly offense on both sides. NC State saw just three players score the ball and shot just 33.3% from the field and 16.7% from deep while South Carolina had a whopping 12 turnovers. Despite the fact that the Gamecocks shot 52.2% from the field, those turnovers, combined with Perez putting up 11 of the Wolfpack’s 19 halftime points, allowed the Pack to keep the contest close in the first half.
“I think we beat ourselves,” Perez said. “And it's not that we ran out of gas, we just couldn’t execute offensively. And we need to do that in order to get over that hump. That was just us.”
NC State battled back particularly hard in the third quarter, coming within one point after a Cunane steal and wide-open Perez layup that ignited a rowdy Reynolds crowd. The two top-five juggernauts continued to trade blows in the third period until mysteriously, the Wolfpack offense completely sputtered out. After a Brown-Turner lay-in to bring the game to 37-36, South Carolina went on an 8-0 run and never looked back.
Brown-Turner hit a big 3 to cut the lead to six at the end of the third but the ‘Cocks once again shut down any hopes of an upset by going on a 10-2 run that they rode until the final buzzer.
“It was tough,” Perez said. “You don’t really see a 6-foot-7, 6-foot-5 post in there all the time, so playing against them was different. I think we kind of picked it up a little bit, but there were spurts where we were down. Getting to the rim was tough, as players we see that and just kind of work in and out with them. But yeah, it was tough.”
Despite playing such a close first half and forcing the aforementioned 12 turnovers, NC State only mustered two more takeaways for the rest of the game. With Johnson and Cunane both having off nights, and the team playing without junior forward Jada Boyd, it just wasn’t in the cards for the Pack to knock off a No. 1 seed. It also didn’t help that graduate forward Kayla Jones still wasn’t at 100%, facing a 20-minute restriction according to Moore.
“It makes it tough, especially because of their length,” Moore said. “There are some teams, a lot of teams their forward, four players are going to be almost like a fourth guard. With this team, they're longer, they're athletic. … We miss Jada Boyd because she can match up a little bit better size and athleticism with those guys. But still, we, for the most part, held our own on that end of the floor, we just offensively couldn't get anything going.”
Even with the loss, Moore, Perez and Brown-Turner all stated that the energy inside Reynolds was big for the team and is something the program is hoping to build on. NC State hasn’t had fans in Reynolds for a regular-season game since Feb. 27, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Yeah, it was awesome,” Moore said. “That adds to the disappointment that we didn't come through and get it done in that kind of atmosphere in front of people. So disappointing. Again, I think we sold out three of our last four games before COVID. We really had a lot of momentum, and then it all got shut down. So great to start out this way and hopefully we can maintain that kind of excitement and energy.”
Next up, NC State will stay at home to participate in the Preseason WNIT in a four-game home event. The Wolfpack first takes on Wofford inside Reynolds on Friday, Nov. 12.