With second straight ACC title, N.C. State shakes up women’s basketball ‘pecking order’

Led by an elite center, the Wolfpack are Final Four contenders

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N.C. State’s Kayla Jones and Raina Perez thank the fans who came to the Greensboro Coliseum to watch them win their second straight ACC title. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

GREENSBORO, N.C. – With Dana Evans zeroing in on her, Raina Perez cradled the ball near midcourt as the clock ticked away.

The championship game of the ACC tournament was tied between No. 3 N.C. State and No. 5 Louisville. About 8.6 seconds remained as Perez, a graduate transfer from Cal State Fullerton, began to make her move on the conference’s reigning two-time Player of the Year. The outcome of the game would ultimately be decided by the decisions of Perez, the Wolfpack point guard whose shooting hand was colder than a polar bear’s toenails — she hadn’t connected on an attempt from the field since the 8:52 mark in the second quarter, going 0-for-6 since.

Perez thought she was going to do something she’d done successfully hundreds of times this season: she’d throw the ball into the paint to the Wolfpack’s All-American center, Elissa Cunane. And that seemed like a swell plan. After all, the Lisa Leslie Award finalist had exposed Louisville’s soft post defense for 20 points already, and she’s shooting 85% from the free-throw line this season.

So, Perez glanced to her right, then drove to her left as Cunane set a pick on Evans. Just inside the three-point arc, Perez pulled back on her dribbled and cocked her right arm, ready to fire a pass into the mitts of her 6’5 blonde center. But Evans stuck to Cunane like glue and Louisville freshman Olivia Cochran closed in on her too. Perez brought the ball back in. There were 4.9 seconds left now. She quickly had to make one of four choices: Force the ball into Cunane, hand the ball off to a closely guarded Kayla Jones (a 43.5% three-point shooter), toss the ball to her right to an open Jada Boyd (who’s made just six three’s all year), or take the long wide-open two-pointer presented to her.

Despite having not made a shot in more than two quarters, Perez confidently opted for the latter. She fired as Evans and Norika Konno closed in on her.

Swish.

Perez flexed, the N.C. State bench erupted and Kai Crutchfield sprinted over for a congratulatory chest bump. It was the 15th lead change of the game and Louisville’s rebuttal, a deep three-pointer from Evans, missed the mark.

N.C. State won 58-56 inside the historic Greensboro Coliseum on Sunday, securing its second straight ACC title and a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. It’s the first time ever the Wolfpack have won back-to-back ACC championships.

“I was honestly looking for the pass,” Perez said, describing the final play. “I hadn't made a shot all second half, so I think I was kind of more in my head. But then they doubled on 'Liss, and I was wide open. I had to take it, and what do you know, it went in.”

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This is what Perez came to N.C. State for. This is why she left Cal State Fullerton, where she was the Big West Player of the Year and led the league in scoring last season. This is why she was willing to sacrifice shot attempts. This is why she was willing to come across the country from her home in Goodyear, Arizona amid a pandemic — to play in games like this, with stakes like this, and to prove she could thrive in moments of absurd pressure.

“I'm just so thrilled to be here. I feel like I belong here,” Perez said. “And I think I proved the point.”

Indeed, N.C. State would not be where it is this season without the play of Perez.

After last season, head coach Wes Moore needed a point guard to run his one-in, four-out system due to the graduation of last year’s ACC tournament MVP, Ace Konig. He had other options, including sliding Crutchfield over a spot or handing the keys to a freshman, but neither would’ve been as efficient. Then Perez came along. Moore plugged her in and the Wolfpack haven’t missed a beat. It’d be easy to argue they’ve been better. Perez made her first start on the road in N.C. State’s win over then-ranked No. 1 South Carolina, and she didn’t have a turnover in 37 minutes of play and also had 11 points and four assists.

This season, Perez has averaged 9.1 points, 4.9 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game. Her +2.92 assist-turnover ratio is the best in the ACC and 21st best in the country.

“I don't know where we'd be without Raina,” Moore said Sunday. “She works, she comes in and prepares like a pro… Raina made it work on the court and off, and our team is a whole lot better because of it.”

Of Perez’s late-game heroics, Moore said: “It was funny because she had about that same look a few minutes earlier and she tried to get it to Elissa, which is a good plan, but I just told her, ‘Hey, take the shot.’ And she took it when it counted most.”

N.C. State head coach Wes Moore talks to Elissa Cunane during a timeout at the Greensboro Coliseum on Saturday, March 6, 2021. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Perez tried to get that ball to Cunane because she had been dominant all game long. Really, the Summerfield, North Carolina native had been efficient, effective, and commanding throughout her three-day tenure in Greensboro. Across N.C. State’s three ACC tournament wins over Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Louisville — three squads that are locks to make the NCAA tournament — Cunane averaged 23.3 points, nine rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 62.5% from the floor.

One of those games was against her close friend and fellow Leslie Award finalist Elizabeth Kitley, another was against ACC co-Defensive Player of the Year Lorela Cubaj, and the other was against Louisville, ranked at the time as the fifth-best team in the country.

If it wasn’t already apparent, it became so in the ACC tournament: Elissa Cunane is the engine that makes N.C. State go. She is one of the best players in the country and her presence makes the Wolfpack a Final Four contender.

Voters watching the games in Greensboro seemed to agree, as they awarded Cunane with the ACC tournament’s MVP trophy.

“She really is — she's the centerpiece. Without her we'd be running that doughnut offense with nothing in the middle,” Moore said. “Elissa is a special player… We ride her pretty hard, and she just finds a way to get it done.

“She doesn't hang her head, she doesn't doubt herself. The girl has got a lot of confidence. I think because of that, our team has a lot of confidence.”

Cunane’s assurance of herself, her toughness, and her abilities are something that has grown this season. It’s rare that she backs down from a battle in the paint, a tussle for a rebound, or positioning in the post.

Often called “The Big Smile,” Cunane still plays with an exuberant amount of joy and spirit, but she’s also not above getting mean and gritty or being brash in her pursuit of buckets. In the ACC tournament, she knew that teams were going to be rough with her inside. She embraced her opponents’ physicality and torched them at the free-throw line, shooting 20-of-24 from the charity stripe over three days in Greensboro.

“They were trying to be physical with me so I had to be physical back,” Cunane said. “I know teams just can't guard me so they've got to foul me. That's the end of it.”

A third-team All-American a season ago, Cunane is averaging 16.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while shooting 57% from the field, 43.5% from three-point land, and 85.6% from the free-throw line. Her field goal and free throw percentages are third-best in the ACC. According to Her Hoop Stats, Cunane also has the best marks in PER (35.3), win shares (4.8), offensive rating (125.1), and defensive rating (81.3) among all ACC players. Of the five finalists for the Leslie Award — which also includes Charli Collier of Texas, Aliyah Boston of South Carolina, Olivia Nelson-Ododa of UConn, and Virginia Tech’s Kitley — Cunane has the highest PER and offensive rating.

“She's a really tough player to guard because she's so skilled offensively. You really need another — at least another half-a-person to help with her,” Georgia Tech head coach Nell Fortner said of Cunane. “She takes advantage of all of her opportunities.”

N.C. State’s Elissa Cunane fights her way around Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley on March 5, 2021, at the Greensboro Coliseum. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Perhaps N.C. State’s opponent in the first round of the NCAA tournament will take Fortner’s advice and attempt to pull off some Dr. Strange-esque magic to split a player in two to help defend the Wolfpack’s skilled center.

The Wolfpack are going to take three days off to rest and bask in their victory for a bit, then their focus will shift to the NCAA tournament, a competition the coronavirus robbed them of competing in last season.

N.C. State is in the conversation to get a No. 1 seed in the tournament, and it’s difficult to argue with the Wolfpack’s resume. The ACC champs beat Louisville twice — once on the road and once on a neutral court — and they beat South Carolina on the road. N.C. State’s latest NET ranking was eighth, and their simple RPI is third-best in the country, per Her Hoop Stats. N.C. State’s two regular-season losses came on the road against NCAA tournament-bound teams in Virginia Tech and UNC, and Cunane was absent from the contest vs. the Hokies.

But if you ask Wes Moore, he doesn’t care all that much what N.C. State’s seed is.

“I'm not really concerned about it,” Moore said. “I mean, again, I realize it's a 1-16 versus a 2-15, and then on down the line. To me, at the end of the day, if you're able somehow someway get through your bracket and get to that point, it's just a matter of if you're going to wear dark uniforms or if you’re going to wear white, and we've been pretty good in black uniforms this year.”

Indeed, regardless if N.C. State is a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed, its goal is to get to a Final Four. Should Moore’s side get that far, it would be N.C. State’s second Final Four berth ever and its first since 1998.

That N.C. State making a Final Four seems realistic and achievable is an accomplishment on its own for Moore, Cunane, Perez, Kayla Jones, Kai Crutchfield, Jada Boyd, and the rest of the Wolfpack.

Yes, N.C. State has a history in women’s college basketball with the great Kay Yow. But between the turn of the century and last season, they hadn’t won much of anything. They weren’t considered contenders for ACC titles, let alone national championships. But when you talk about the best teams now, you’d look foolish if you didn’t mention N.C. State.

Moore was hired in 2013 to replace Kellie Harper, and the process of elevating the Wolfpack back to elite status hasn’t been quick or easy, but Moore never expected it to be. But he also never believed that it couldn’t be done, nor that he could do it alone. He’d have to let some talented and incredible players lead the way.

“I had somebody tell me a few years ago when I first got here that, ‘There's a pecking order in women's basketball, and you'll never change that,’” Moore said. “Well, you're right, I didn't, but we've got some players that are trying to change that.”