'A butt game': No. 8 N.C. State ready for challenge at No. 1 South Carolina

Wolfpack, Gamecocks battle at 7 pm ET on ESPN2

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Wes Moore calls N.C. State’s Thursday night matchup with South Carolina a “butt game.”

It’s best to let him explain what that means.

“We better get our butt back in transition, we better get our butt down and try to guard them and keep them in front of us, and we better get our butt on them and box them out because they're really good at all those things,” said Moore, the head coach of the No. 8 Wolfpack.

Starting the season 2-0, Moore feels solid about where his team is offensively. Through two games, they’ve shot 57.7% from the floor, 41.3% from outside and 75% from the charity stripe. They outscored mid-majors North Florida and NC Central by an average margin of 33 points.

But heading down to Columbia, S.C. to face the No. 1 Gamecocks, Moore is concerned with where his team is at defensively.

“I look back now at the game Sunday against North Carolina Central; I was disappointed. We gave up 70 points,” Moore said. “When you watch the film, you see a lot of things that we need to clean up. We're not very good on the ball, we're not very good off-pick on the ball or defending pick-on the ball, I should say. We got to get better at it. And we got to have more urgency and compete a little bit harder, especially in this game.”

In South Carolina, N.C. State will face its toughest test of its non-conference slate. The Gamecocks were the No. 1 team in the country for the majority of last season and are expected to hold on to that spot this year too. Early on this season, Dawn Staley’s side is off to a 3-0 start after taking care of business against Charleston, South Dakota and No. 18 Gonzaga.

The Gamecocks are led this season by Destanni Henderson and sophomore Zia Cooke, both of whom are averaging 17.7 points per-game. Oh, and there’s also Aliyah Boston, the reigning Lisa Leslie Award Winner and the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

Cunane vs. Boston

Most eyes will be on Boston and the other player on the watchlists for the Naismith and Wooden awards, N.C. State’s Elissa Cunane.

Both Cunane and Boston:

  • Are listed at 6’5

  • Were AP All-Americans last season

  • Were top three in their conferences in rebounding

  • Are on the watchlist for this season’s Leslie Award

  • Were recruited by both N.C. State and South Carolina

Cunane said that South Carolina was in her top five of school choices before she decided on N.C. State, and that Staley visited her home and high school. Moore remembers Boston visiting the Raleigh campus when she was an underclassman in high school.

A year ago, Cunane didn’t fare so well when she faced a player whose expertise was defending in the paint. When Louisville and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Kylee Shook came to town, Cunane struggled inside, finishing with 10 points on 1-of-12 shooting. She never made a shot from inside the three-point arc in that game, a 66-59 victory for the visiting Cardinals at Reynolds Coliseum.

For Cunane, going up against Boston will be at least equally – but likely more – challenging.

“I've seen a lot from her on film. She's a great player. Her teammates do a great job of getting the ball into her, she does a great job of just quick turnaround moves running the floor, she has a nice little shot in the paint, as well as just getting her own offensive rebounds,” Cunane said of Boston. “So, it's definitely going to be a big task guarding her… I think it'd be a great challenge for me. You know, I go against two great post players in practice every day, but it's going to be different in a game situation. So, I'm really excited to play against her, hopefully do good and grow from it afterwards.”

To control Boston on the boards and contain her in the paint, Moore thinks it’ll take the entire Wolfpack.

“It's going to take a whole team against Boston. I'm afraid if you isolate her and Elissa down there, I'm worried about foul trouble and everything else,” Moore said. “So, we're going to have to do a good job of helping wherever we can and try to keep the ball out of there as much as we can. Because once (Boston) gets it on the block, it's tough.”

Still, he wants Cunane to be assertive and aggressive.

“Sometimes, Elissa passes too much. I had to remind her the other day, ‘You're not a point guard. When we get it into you deep, I want you to score,’” Moore said. “Obviously, we want to get her the touches down there and try to get her to good positions to score. It's important for us… Make Boston have to come out and guard. I think that's where, you know, Elissa can shoot the three really well.”

Boyd could be X-factor (UPDATE: Or not)

Since N.C. State won the ACC title a year ago, the lone newcomer to the starting lineup is Jada Boyd, a  6’2 sophomore forward.

She’s impressed so far, notching a double-double against North Florida and tallying 13 points, two rebounds and two steals against NC Central. A native of Petersburg, Virginia, she made some mistakes as an underdeveloped freshman last season, but always displayed unmatched explosiveness and a motor that never seemed to stop running.

This year, she’s retained that raw unteachable athleticism, but also sharpened the finer points of her game, such as passing and defending.

“I told JB, she's a monster. Just the way that she can grab a rebound and just put it back up,” senior guard Kai Crutchfield said. “She's definitely been a great addition to our team.”

Added Cunane: “Anytime she gets the ball, we know that she can take whoever she's guarding. And I think we've known that since she got here. I think the part of her game that she really worked on this year is just the mental aspect, just remembering little things having a better basketball IQ. I think that has shown and she's really stepped up this year.”

UPDATE 3:07 PM ET: Jake Caccavaro reports that Boyd will miss the game.

Behind the scenes

This game was not on the schedule in the summer. Or even in October.

The Wolfpack was supposed to play in a multi-team event in the Bahamas. That got canceled.

Then they were supposed to play in Florida with two Big Ten teams. That got canceled.

Then they were supposed to host the preseason WNIT. That got canceled.

Then they were supposed to start a home-and-home series with another Big Ten team. That got canceled too.

Suddenly, in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, Moore was looking at a non-conference schedule that didn’t really test his team much at all. So, he looked at a map and saw that the University of South Carolina was about three-and-a-half hours away. That’s a bus trip, he thought. N.C. State and South Carolina quickly agreed to a home-and-home series, and then Moore picked up the phone and called ESPN.

“‘Hey, if we put this game together, do you think it's going to be on either ESPN or on the Deuce?’ And they assured me that, yeah, we get this kind of match-up it's going to be on,” Moore said. “So, it just made for a perfect fit.”

The game made sense for everyone. N.C. State and South Carolina both get a non-conference game against a fellow Top 10 team and ESPN gets a marquee game to fill 7 p.m. slot on Thursday night on ESPN2.

The game is also part of ESPN’s Jimmy V. Classic. Valvano famously coached the N.C. State men to a national championship in 1983, and Moore is elated for his squad to be part of this year’s games.

“We felt like it was important that we get a game like this in and test our team and find out where we are before we jump into the ACC,” Moore said. “It’s a Jimmy V. game, and that’s pretty neat too… It’s a win-win. We’re on national TV and it’s great exposure for our program.”

Obviously, the Wolfpack are hoping to come away with more than just exposure on Thursday. A victory for N.C. State would shake up expectations for this constantly changing season.