Look Ahead — 2020 Team of the Year: Stage set for Wolfpack women

NC State women’s basketball coach Wes Moore, center, flashes the Wolfpack symbol as Kai Crutchfield, left, and Aislinn Konig look on during ACC Media Day in Charlotteon Oct. 3. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

It isn’t often that a team gets the opportunity for a do-over.

When you lose, you lose. Game over. And when the season over, there’s no turning back.

Unless, of course, you’re the NC State women’s basketball team.

While the Wolfpack can’t go back and replay a 2018-19 season that started with 21 straight wins but finished in disappointment because of an unprecedented epidemic of four season-ending knee injuries, it at least has a chance to return and answer some of the “what-ifs.”

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

Out of the gate at 11-0, ranked No. 9 nationally and picked to finish second behind Louisville in the ACC’s preseason poll, State is in position to be the North State Journal’s Team of the Year for 2020.

“I’m excited about this group,” Moore said following his 700th career victory, an 81-40 beatdown of Lamar earlier this season. “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.”

That jelling process is already well underway.

Currently, all five starters are averaging at least 8.5 points per game, led by the 6-foot-5 Cunane at 16.3 points per game and explosive guard Crutchfield at 10.1. Two of the freshmen, starter Jakia Brown-Turner and top reserve Jada Boyd, are not far behind at 8.4 and 7.4 points per game, respectively.

Cunane is the top rebounder at 10.6 per game while three players — Konig, Crutchfield and Jones — all have more than 20 assists, a testament to the team’s balance and unselfishness.

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 door is wide open for the Wolfpack to make a serious run at a conference championship and its first Final Four appearance since the late Kay Yow’s crowning achievement in 1998.

Not that Moore is looking that far ahead.

“I feel like we can play better than we’ve played the last couple of games, but there’s also a lot to be said for being 11-0,” he said after his team’s lopsided win against Chattanooga in mid-December. “There are some men’s and women’s teams that have lost some games that you’re kind of taken aback by. For us to survive that and go into conference play unblemished, that’s what you ask for.”

As impressive as the Wolfpack has been thus far, winning its games by an average margin of 22.6 points and is holding its opponents to just 51.9 points and 31.1 percent shooting, it still has only been seriously tested once during the nonconference schedule.

It passed that test by beating then-No. 9 Maryland 66-59 at Reynolds Coliseum on Dec. 5 in a game that could be a preview of what State might look like once the postseason arrives.

“It felt like a game that was built for March,” Terrapins coach Brenda Frese said. “When you talk about the intensity of that game, how it was back and forth … I thought (the Wolfpack) did a tremendous job.”

Even with so many key players on the sideline, State still finished 28-6 and advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2018-19. Now, with a chance to do it all over again with all its key pieces in place, Moore and his players are ready to put an even sweeter ending to this season’s story.

“We’ve got to make sure we come out ready to play every game no matter who it is (against),” Moore said, “and try to focus on us being the best version of NC State we can be instead of worrying about the scoreboard sometimes.”