James’ 7 3s lift NC State past Texas, into women’s Final Four

NC State celebrates after earning a spot in the Final Four by beating Texas on Sunday in Portland, Oregon. (Steve Dykes / AP Photo)

PORTLAND, Ore. — Playing on a court with mismatched 3-point lines, Aziaha James was on target from everywhere.

James made a career-high seven 3-pointers and scored 27 points, and third-seeded NC State earned its first trip to the Final Four of the women’s NCAA Tournament since 1998, beating top-seeded Texas 76-66 on Sunday in a game played with 3-point lines at different distances on opposite ends of the court.

River Baldwin added 16 points for NC State (31-6), which will face unbeaten South Carolina in the national semifinals in Cleveland on Saturday. The Gamecocks beat Oregon State in Albany, New York, earlier Sunday.

James laughed when asked if the different perimeter markings mattered to her.

“Not at all,” she said. “Not at all.”

Madison Booker, the Big 12 Player of the Year and one of the top freshmen in the country along with Southern California’s JuJu Watkins, finished with 17 points to lead the Longhorns (33-5), who were vying for their first Final Four since 2003.

Before the Portland 4 Region final, Texas coach Vic Schaefer and NC State’s Wes Moore conferred with officials about a visible difference between the 3-point lines. One appeared to be too close to the basket at the top of the key.

The NCAA acknowledged a discrepancy but said both coaches agreed to play on. Four previous games in Portland were played without anyone saying anything publicly about the issue. The court will be corrected before Monday’s Elite Eight game between USC and UConn, the NCAA said.

Afterward, Schaefer said the difference was “about a foot.”

“You want to know how if I think it had anything to do with the game? Probably not,” he said.

James finished 7 of 9 on 3s. She said the players were not told about the discrepancy before the game.

“I just allowed the game to come to me, and it went well for me,” she said.

NC State led by 18 points in the first half, but Texas closed within 54-48 on DeYona Gaston’s jumper late in the third quarter. James answered with a 3 to put the Wolfpack ahead by nine heading into the final period.

Booker’s three-point play moved Texas within 63-55. The Longhorns kept up their pressure with Taylor Jones’ three-point play to narrow the gap to 65-58 with 4:41 to go. Another 3 by James kept Texas at bay.

Baldwin’s jumper that made it 72-62 with 1:50 left all but sealed it for the Wolfpack. With 28 seconds left, James walked into a timeout with her arms raised to elicit cheers from the fans behind the bench.

“Everybody doubted us,” James said as her teammates celebrated. “We weren’t even ranked before the season, and now we’re going to the Final Four.”

The Wolfpack’s last Elite Eight appearance in 2022 ended with a double-overtime loss to UConn. NC State was stopped by Louisiana Tech in its only previous Final Four appearance.

That loss haunted coach Moore, who said, “I didn’t know if I’d ever get another chance.”

Texas won its lone national title in 1986, going 34-0. But it’s been 21 years since legendary coach Jody Conradt took the team to its last Final Four.

Booker said the Longhorns showed their resilience after junior point guard Rori Harmon was lost for the season with a torn ACL in December.

“People go down and they say, ‘They’re not winning in the Big 12, they’re not winning this many games, they’re not making the Final Four, they’re not making it this far, they’re not a No. 1 seed,’” Booker said. “We kept fighting. We kept fighting the odds, and we made you believe.”

James scored 10 points in the first quarter and NC State took an early 19-14 lead. The Wolfpack ultimately pushed ahead 40-22.

Gisella Maul made a 3 for Texas at the halftime buzzer to close the Longhorns’ deficit to 43-31.

“We outrebounded them, 14 on the offensive boards, 13 overall, and we got 20 more shots than they got,” Schaefer said. “The first half we really struggled guarding defensively. We’re all disappointed. I mean that locker room is tough.”