Second half blitz leads State women to sweep of UNC

NC State guard Kai Crutchfield drives against UNC’s Eva Hodgson during the first half of Sunday’s rivalry game in Chapel Hill. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — The first meeting between the women’s basketball teams from NC State and North Carolina this season was over almost as soon as it began after the Wolfpack scored the game’s first 10 points at Reynolds Coliseum and never looked back.

Sunday in Chapel Hill, coach Wes Moore’s third-ranked team waited a full half before it put the hammer down.

This time State spotted the Tar Heels as much as a 12-point headstart in the first half before roaring from behind to claim a 66-58 victory at Carmichael Arena.

Kai Crutchfield scored 16 points and keyed a 14-0 run to start the second half to lead the Wolfpack to a sweep of the regular season series with its rival and remain undefeated atop the ACC standings.

“There were some things that we could have done better in the first half, but we got our things together and we turned it around,” said Crutchfield, one of three graduate students who decided to use the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA to return to State this season. “Coach has stressed the importance of us trying to play as a team for 40 minutes straight and we’re trying to work our way close to that.”

The Wolfpack (19-2, 10-0 ACC) were anything but in sync for most of the opening 20 minutes.

They shot just 29.4% from the floor in the first quarter and was even colder from 3-point range, making only one of their first 10 attempts after coming into the game as the third-most accurate team in the nation from beyond the arc.

UNC (16-4, 6-4) took advantage by building an early lead that grew to as much as 27-15 with 8:43 left in the half.

But even then, the Tar Heels weren’t able to land a knockout punch. With star guard Deja Kelly struggling from the floor on the way to an 0-for-11 performance, UNC left the door open for State by making only five of its 15 field goal attempts in the second quarter while turning the ball over seven times before halftime.

The Tar Heels shot 32% and were 5 of 23 on 3-pointers in the game.

“We knew that the version of us that we showed at their place wasn’t the version that we wanted to be something that people remembered, so we thought we took care of that,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said afterward. “But you can’t shoot so poorly for stretches of the game and expect to beat a really good team.”

State began its comeback by scoring the final two baskets of the half to narrow the Tar Heels’ lead to 33-27. 

Then after being told by coach Wes Moore just “to play NC State basketball” during the break, the Wolfpack went into overdrive. With Crutchfield scoring from the perimeter and All-American center Elissa Cunane doing damage inside, it took State less than three minutes to catch up and blow past its rival.

The Wolfpack lead eventually topped out at 13 on a 3-pointer by Raina Perez before the end of the quarter.

That turned out to be more than enough to hold on for the victory, thanks to an offense that had an answer to every attempt at a Tar Heel rally and a defense that held UNC without a field goal for the final three minutes.

Crutchfield scored 11 of her 16 points in the second half to lead State. Cunane finished with an 11-point, 12-rebound double-double while Jakia Brown-Turner and Perez were also in double figures with 13 and 10 points, respectively.

Kennedy Todd-Williams led UNC with 15 points. Carlie Littlefield scored 12 points despite going just 3 of 15 overall and 1 of 6 from 3-point range.

“The first half was tough. They knocked down some big shots,” Moore said. “But I’m proud of the players for being able to hang in there and keep it to six at halftime. Then in the third quarter, I just love the way we came out. We were confident and aggressive, we got Elissa a lot of touches and she finished well, and I thought Kai really hit some big shots in the fourth quarter.”

In addition to her shooting and scoring, Crutchfield was also the primary defender who held Kelly, who averages 16.7 points per game, scoreless for the first time since a game against the Wolfpack last February.

Crutchfield had scored in double figures only twice this season before Sunday. But in a big spot, she lived up to her nickname of Kai Clutchfield.

“A lot of times she’s drawing the defensive assignment on the other team’s best scorer on the perimeter and that takes something out of her,” Moore said of his veteran guard, who went 6 of 11 (4 of 7 3-pointers). “She’s just unselfish. She shares the ball, makes the extra pass. But when you need it, which we did today, she comes up big. I thought that was the difference in the ballgame.”