Look Ahead — 2024 Team of the Year: Wolfpack women return to prominence

Guard Aziaha James and the Wolfpack start to 2023 as the nation’s third-ranked women’s basketball team. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

NC State’s women’s basketball team has been knocking on the door for a long time.

Ever since coach Wes Moore took over the program in 2013, the Wolfpack have won the ACC Tournament three times, made the NCAA Tournament seven times and reached the Sweet 16 three times. NC State also advanced to the Elite Eight in 2022, coming up four points short of advancing to the Final Four in a double-overtime loss to UConn.

It seemed like momentum was building for the Wolfpack, but the team took a step back last season, finishing eighth in the ACC and losing in a first round upset to Princeton.

Following that disappointing season, Moore had to reshape a roster that was losing four of its five starters.

It’s safe to say what he’s done has worked.

The Wolfpack enter 2024 ranked No. 3 in the nation with a perfect 13-0 record. They’ve picked up several big wins, including an early-season 92-81 victory over then-No. 2 UConn and a 78-60 win against then-No. 3 Colorado.

Unlike many on-the-fly rebuilds, NC State’s rebirth came from within. The Wolfpack’s three returning guards have all become double-digit scorers this season. Junior Aziaha James (15.5 points per game), junior Saniya Rivers (13.3) and senior Madison Hayes (11) have each taken on bigger roles, and frontcourt graduate students Mimi Collins and River Baldwin, who each joined the program last season, are two of the team’s top three rebounders.

That’s without mentioning the impact of true freshman guard Zoe Brooks, who continues to develop into a superstar.

Brooks was the No. 4 guard and No. 9 overall player in the 2023 class, and she has made an immediate impact with the Wolfpack.

Brooks is averaging 10 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.5 steals this season, and she had just the second triple-double in school history in NC State’s 80-67 win over Liberty on Dec. 10.

ACC play will offer another challenge for the Wolfpack — five other conference foes were ranked in The Associated Press’ final poll of the calendar year, and two more received votes. The stiff competition should help NC State hone its skills and be battle-tested for another deep NCAA Tournament run.

The Wolfpack have already knocked off two top-five teams, and 2024 could be the year the program returns to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.

And once you get there, anything is possible.

Even an NCAA championship.