After 2nd straight ACC title, Wolfpack women take aim at NCAA’s elite teams

NC State coach Wes Moore cuts down the net at Greensboro Coliseum after the Wolfpack won their second straight ACC Tournament title. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

GREENSBORO — Just as Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State have gained favored program status when it comes to the College Football Playoff, there is also a similar pecking order when it comes to women’s college basketball.

Among the usual suspects are UConn, Stanford, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Baylor, who between them have won 10 of the last 11 national championships that have been contested.

It’s an exclusive party NC State is hoping to crash after beating Louisville 58-56 on Sunday to win its second straight ACC Tournament championship.

“It’s really great for our program, obviously, trying to break through in there,” Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said of the repeat title, secured on a 17-foot jumper with 2.1 seconds remaining by graduate transfer Raina Perez.

“I had somebody tell me a few years ago when I first got here, ‘There’s a pecking order in women’s basketball, and you’ll never change that.’ Well, you’re right, but we’ve got some players that are trying to change that.”

Just how far Moore and his program have come in their pursuit of elite status will be tested Monday when the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced.

Despite being 20-2 with one of its losses coming in overtime without its best player in the lineup, owning two victories against teams ranked No. 1 at the time and a current No. 3 national ranking, State is projected as a No. 2 tournament seed behind — you guessed it — UConn, Stanford, South Carolina and Texas A&M.

The good thing about college basketball is no matter how the teams are seeded, championships are won on the court.

And by beating Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and top-seeded Louisville on consecutive days last week in Greensboro, the Wolfpack has proved it knows how to win tournament titles as a No. 2 seed.

“It’s nothing we can control,” Moore said. “I’m not worried about it. I don’t mind flying under the radar. At NC State it seems like we kind of do that, so I’m fine with it.”

If nothing else, getting pushed down to the second line of the bracket could serve as added motivation for a Wolfpack team that has the talent and experience to make a serious run at its school’s second Final Four appearance.

Not that it needs any extra incentive.

State showed plenty of motivation, along with some grit and perseverance, in earning another banner for the Reynolds Coliseum rafters.

On Thursday, ACC Tournament MVP Elissa Cunane did so by scoring a season-high 27 points. In Saturday’s semifinal win against Georgia Tech, senior guard Kai Crutchfield scored eight of her 10 points in the fourth quarter to lead her team back from a 10-point deficit in the final seven minutes.

Then against Louisville, with Cunane double-teamed inside, Perez took matters into her own hands by stepping back and hitting her championship-clinching jumper to cap an eight-point fourth-quarter comeback.

“I was honestly looking for the pass,” said Perez, who scored nine points in the game but had missed her six previous field goal attempts since the second quarter. “I hadn’t made a shot all second half, so I think I was kind of in my head. But then they doubled on ‘Lissa and I was wide open. I had to take it and, what do you know, it went in.”

Elissa Cunane scored more than 20 points and had nine rebounds in each of NC State’s three wins en route to the Wolfpack’s second consecutive ACC Tournament title. (Ethan Human / The News & Observer via AP)

It was somehow fitting that Perez made the shot that put State over the top. The 5-foot-4 point guard is one of the few players on the roster that wasn’t on the team when it won its first championship on the same floor last year.

The Big West Conference Player of the Year at Cal State Fullerton last season, Perez was recruited by Moore specifically to fill the void left by the graduation of team captain and 2020 ACC Tournament MVP Aislinn Konig.

Conversely, Perez chose State specifically to show that she belonged at a high-major program and to help the Wolfpack remain at a championship level.

Sunday’s victory accomplished the mission for everyone involved.

“I’m just so thrilled to be here,” said Perez, who plans on returning to State next season. “I feel like I belong here, and I think I proved the point. I’m just so excited and grateful.”

Few graduate transfers in any sport have worked out as well.

“We had some freshmen, young players, but we felt like we needed somebody with experience that you could just drop into this lineup and not miss a beat. I think that’s what’s happened,” Moore said. “It doesn’t always work that way, but Raina made it work on the court and off, and our team is a whole lot better because of it.”

And the encouraging thing is that it still left plenty of room for improvement despite getting to celebrate with another post-tournament net-cutting ceremony.

“We definitely didn’t shoot it well all tournament long, so being able to win — especially against a top-five team — not playing at our peak, it talks a lot about how well we did getting stops on defense,” Cunane said. “But the best is yet to come. I don’t feel like we’ve played our best game yet, so hopefully that comes out in the NCAA Tournament.”

Regardless of where they’re seeded.