Wolfpack women keep winning, enter national Top 10

NC State’s Elissa Cunane drives for a layup against Maryland’s Kaila Charles during the Wolfpack’s 66-59 win last Thursday in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge game at Reynolds Coliseum. (Robert Clark / North State Journal)

RALEIGH — Given the way the NC State women’s basketball team began the 2018-19 season, it’s understandable why coach Wes Moore and his players aren’t all that impressed with the 9-0 start they’ve fashioned this year.

“Last year’s team only went 21-0,” Moore said last Thursday after a 66-59 win against then-No. 10 Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. “So I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”

That notwithstanding, the homespun Wolfpack coach admitted that he’s excited about the possibilities of what his current team can become.

He should be.

Unlike a year ago, when four key players were lost to season-ending knee injuries — leaving State with little depth and even less gas in the tank for the important games at the end — Moore is finally dealing from a full deck of healthy players.

He’s also dealing with an ACC that is suddenly wide open with the dramatic drop-off of perennial national power Notre Dame, which is just 5-6 after playing in the national championship game each of the past two seasons.

Most of all, though, there’s the talent and versatility of a Wolfpack squad that returns most of the important pieces from a 28-6 season that ended in the Sweet 16 while adding a stellar class of newcomers.

Currently, four players are averaging double-figure scoring — 6-foot-5 sophomore Elissa Cunane (14.9 points per game while also leading the team in rebounding at 10.4), sophomore sharpshooter Kai Crutchfield (10.8 points), junior power forward Kayla Jones (10.2 points) and senior point guard Aislinn Konig (10.0 points). Freshmen Jakia Brown-Turner (8.8 points) and Jada Boyd (7.0 points) are not far behind.

The lineup is so talented and the chemistry so good, Moore finds himself with the enviable problem of trying to find enough playing time for his reserves, especially the multitalented Boyd.

“We’re excited about Jada Boyd and we need to get her out there more,” the Wolfpack coach said. “But it’s tough because (Jones) is hard to take off the court.”

State, which has jumped up to No. 9 in the national rankings, indicated how good it can be against Maryland on a night when it clearly wasn’t at its best.

Worn out from a long trip home from winning a tournament in Hawaii only a few days earlier, the Wolfpack committed 28 turnovers and suffered through several defensive lapses. But it still found a way to beat its highly ranked opponent thanks to the hot perimeter shooting of Crutchfield and the powerful inside duo of Cunane and Jones.

“It was a good challenge for our team, playing a better team than we have played against,” said Cunane, who was one of two State players with double-doubles against the Terrapins, going for 16 points and 15 rebounds. “I think it was good for us to really test ourselves and see what we’re made of. It turned out pretty good for us.”

The Maryland game was the first real test for the Wolfpack this season, one reason why it isn’t ranked any higher than it already is.

“We needed a win like this, against a top-10 program,” Moore said. “I think hopefully this does teach us a lot about ourselves and prepares us for the size, athleticism and pure talent that we’re going to see down the road.”

Despite the win, Moore said his squad is still very much a work in progress. But as he pointed out after the game, “it’s nice when you can learn from a win instead of a loss. … There’s still a lot of stuff that we can get better at.”

The good news is that after a busy early-season schedule, Moore and his team will have time to work things out in practice with only two more nonconference tune-ups — against Elon and Chattanooga — between now and their ACC opener at Boston College on Dec. 29.

“Hopefully we’ll watch this film and clean this stuff up a little bit and they can recover a little bit and concentrate on getting their schoolwork done,” Moore said. “Then they can enjoy a little break there at Christmas before we come back and crank it up.”