NC State women the class of Tobacco Road

Kayla Jones is one of four players averaging double-digit points for 14th-ranked NC State. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

The NC State women’s basketball team won its first 21 games last season and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

But as much success as the Wolfpack enjoyed, coach Wes Moore could only wonder how much more it could have accomplished had his team’s roster not been decimated by a rash of season-ending knee injuries.

Point guard Kaila Ealey, leading scorer Grace Hunter, starting forward Erika Cassell and backup guard Armani Hawkins were all lost during the course of the year, leaving State with precious little depth.

But that shouldn’t be a problem this season.

With the return of senior sharpshooter Aislinn Konig, sophomore center Elissa Cunane and juniors Kai Crutchfield and Kayla Jones, and the now-healthy walking wounded — along with a stellar recruiting class that includes four top-100 recruits — Moore and his Wolfpack are poised to finish the job they started before all the injuries began to mount up.

They were picked to finish second behind Louisville in the ACC’s preseason poll and are off to an impressive 4-0 start after Tuesday’s 62-34 victory against Maine.

“I’m excited about this group,” Moore said following his 700th career victory, an 81-40 beatdown of Lamar last Thursday. “I think we’ve got some great players, but we’ve still got to put it all together. The freshmen are still taking a sip of water out of a fire hose and getting blown away.”

Two of those rookies are already making their presence felt. 

Jakia Brown-Turner, a 6-foot McDonald’s All-American, has stepped right into the starting lineup as a wing and is averaging in double figures through four games. Classmate Jada Boyd, meanwhile, has been a 6-foot-2 force off the bench while leading the team in rebounds — including 16 Tuesday in the win against Maine.

“They’re an extremely talented bunch,” Konig said of the freshmen during the ACC’s preseason media day. “They bring a lot of different aspects to our game and deepen our bench. I think they will have an opportunity to make an impact on the floor, especially in the coming years.”

With perennial power Notre Dame taking a step back after going to the national championship game in each of the past two years, including winning the title in 2018, the Wolfpack might not have to wait for the coming years to feel the impact of the new influx of talent and depth.

Another team looking to fill the void and make a move up the ACC standings while the Irish rebuilds is North Carolina.

The Tar Heels returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years last season but have a new look for 2018-19 with the arrival of first-year coach Courtney Banghart. A seven-time Ivy League champion at Princeton, Banghart takes over for Hall of Famer Sylvia Hatchell, who was pushed aside after 33 years and 751 victories last spring following accusations of racially insensitive remarks and forcing players to play while injured.

Banghart inherits a roster that has been picked to finish ninth in the ACC but returns preseason all-conference center Janelle Bailey and starting guard Taylor Koenen. UNC will also benefit from the arrival of transfer guard Madinah Muhammad, who scored more than 1,000 points in her first three seasons at Ole Miss and will help make up for the scoring lost with the graduation of last year’s leader Paris Kea.

The Tar Heels also have a talented freshman in 6-3 forward Malu Tshitenge, who was named ACC Rookie of the Week last week for averaging a double-double and helping her team get off to a 3-0 start.

“There’s been lots of change, on the court in how we want to play and off the court in how we respond and engage,” Banghart said. “I appreciate that they’ve looked us in the eye and tried to meet our needs, and as a result, they to continue to get our best.”

While UNC is breaking in a new coach, Duke’s veteran leader Joanne P. McCallie might be coaching for her job this season after falling to 15-15 overall (6-10 ACC) and missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the second time in four years.

This year’s Blue Devils have the tallest team in the ACC with 10 players 6 feet or above, led by redshirt senior guard Haley Gorecki, who is the league’s top returning scorer after averaging 17.2 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.9 steals per game a year ago.

Among those under 6 feet, sophomore guard Miela Goodchild could be poised for a breakout season after helping Australia to the silver medal at the FIBA World Cup this summer.

Duke was picked to finish seventh in the ACC but is off to a shaky start after suffering lopsided losses to Texas A&M and Northwestern in its first four games.

Wake Forest, meanwhile, is also off to a slow start with losses to UNC Greensboro and Charlotte as it looks for just its second winning season in the last eight years.

The Deacons have yet to make the NCAA Tournament or finish better than ninth in the ACC under coach Jen Hoover and are coming off a 2018-19 campaign in which they went 10-20 (1-15). They were picked to finish last again this season.

Wake’s top players are 6-foot-1 Australian guard Alex Sharp (14.0 points, 7.0 rebounds in four games this season), 6-foot-2 Serbian forward Ivana Raca (11.7 points, 6.3 rebounds) and junior point guard Gina Conti (8.3 points, 4.3 assists).