Third quarter blitz propels Wolfpack women to lopsided win

NC State’s Diamond Johnson shots for two of her game-high 12 points over Georgia Tech’s Digna Strautmane during Monday’s Play 4 Kay game at Reynolds Coliseum (PJ Ward-Brown/North State Journal)

RALEIGH – Wes Moore must have given one heck of a halftime speech Monday. Either that or his NC State women’s basketball team was inspired by the emotional ceremony honoring cancer survivors on Play 4 Kay night at Reynolds Coliseum.

Either way, the fifth-ranked Wolfpack came out of the locker room snarling. 

It scored the first 10 points of the third quarter, holding Georgia Tech scoreless for six minutes along the way, to turn a competitive game into a blowout before cruising to a deceptively close 59-48 victory.

Diamond Johnson scored 12 points off the bench and Raina Perez added 11 to lead the Wolfpack to its sixth win against a ranked opponent this season and maintain its spot atop the ACC standings.

“I thought they really turned up the heat to start the third quarter and really punched us in the mouth,” Yellow Jackets coach Nell Fortner said of State’s early second half blitz. “I had to call a timeout. I hated using it, but I had to. They were just on fire and we couldn’t do anything to stop them.”

Kayla Jones outreaches Georgia Tech’s Eylia Love for a loose ball during NC State’s win at Reynolds Coliseum on Monday (PJ Ward-Brown/North State Journal)

Elissa Cunane scored the first three baskets of the half after being held scoreless during the opening 20 minutes, then Perez scored the next two while on the other end of the court, the Wolfpack (23-3, 12-1 ACC) forced Tech into five turnovers and four missed shots on its opening nine possessions.

Combined with the final two points of the first half, the 12-0 run increased what had been a six-point Wolfpack lead into a comfortable cushion that eventually grew as large as 24 points at 53-29 early in the fourth quarter.

The second half surge was similar to the ones that helped State break open earlier ACC wins against North Carolina and Virginia Tech.

“The third quarter is our quarter where we take off,” said Johnson, who broke out of a shooting slump to hit her first four shots and go 5 of 9 from the floor. “Nine times out of 10, that’s the game for us. Just coming out stronger in the third quarter has always been good for us.”

If the strong second halves are rapidly becoming a Wolfpack trademark, then so, too, are its recent slow starts.

On this occasion it took State half the first quarter to finally get cranked up. That allowed the Yellow Jackets (18-5, 9-3) to jump out to a 10-2 head start. 

It took back-to-back 3-pointers by Perez and Kayla Jones to finally break the ice. From that point until the end of the third period, the pink-clad Wolfpack outscored Tech 47-19 while limiting its opponent to just 5 of 29 shooting.

NC State coach Wes Moore sports a pink pullover on Play 4 Kay night Monday (PJ Ward-Brown/North State Journal)

“The first few minutes we started off slow again,” Moore said. “I don’t know what it is about that, but I’m proud of the effort we gave to get back in it and even it up pretty quick. The energy, the urgency, we’ve still got to get that for 40 minutes and kind of put that together.”

Fortner praised State for its defense and its toughness. It’s depth played into the equation as well, with Johnson, Jada Boyd and Camille Hobby combining to contribute 28 points to only two from Tech’s reserves.

But what was shaping up to be an uplifting evening thanks to the mid-game performance, the pink t-shirts handed out to the sellout crowd and the donation of $324,087 to the Kay Yow Cancer Fund, the game ended on a down note – at least from Moore’s perspective.

That’s because the Wolfpack went the final 4:41 without scoring, allowing the Yellow Jackets to close the gap to a more respectable margin.

Eylia Love led three Tech scorers in double figures with 16 points.

“I’m never going to be completely happy,” Moore said. “But for three quarters tonight, (it was) pretty good.”