Control of the ACC Not in the Cards For Wolfpack Women
The NC State women's basketball team had a space in the Reynolds Coliseum rafters all dusted off and ready for the ACC regular season championship banner it would have all but ensured with a win against Louisville on Thursday.
But while the Wolfpack has come a long way over the past few years under coach Wes Moore, it still has lessons left to learn about being a conference frontrunner.
Among them is the one Louisville emphatically taught it in a showdown of top-10 teams, that that championships don't come easily.
The ninth-ranked Cardinals used an early spurt to build a double-digit lead and never looked back in beating No. 4 State 66-59 before a packed house that was ready to celebrate.
Instead, the sellout crowd of 5,575 went home disappointed after watching the Wolfpack's eight-game winning streak come to and end.
"You have to give Louisville credit," Moore said. "They'd lost back-to-back games and one of their best players missed those two games, but they came out ready to play, they took it to us and we dug a hole.
"I thought we took some bad shots in the first quarter, in particular, forced some things. Maybe we were a little nervous, but we weren't in attacking mode."
The Wolfpack (21-2, 11-2 ACC) actually started the game strong, feeding off the energy of a festive crowd by forcing two quick turnovers and jumping out to a 6-1 lead in the opening two minutes.
But the early burst of energy didn't last.
Whether State thought it was going to be easy or Louisville's sense of urgency suddenly kicked in at the thought of losing a third straight ACC game, things turned around dramatically from there.
The Wolfpack missed its next seven field goal attempts, allowing the Cardinals (22-3, 11-2) to run off 12 unanswered points for a lead they would never relinquish.
"We took some tough shots," said junior forward Kayla Jones, who made eight of her team's 21 field goals in the game to finish with a team-leading 17 points. "They can run. They're a team that scores or transition and our tough shots are like turnovers. We probably should have taken better shots and attacked the rim, and we could have cut those points out."
As damaging as those early points were, the three that may have hurt the most came in the final 20 seconds of the half.
Trailing 30-23, the Wolfpack had a chance to take the last shot of the period when Kaila Ealey came down with an offensive rebound. But instead of being patient and running the clock down to the end, Elissa Cunane took a quick shot and missed, giving Louisville's Dana Evans a chance to hit a 3-pointer that extended the margin to 10 at the intermission.
"We were down seven and we could have taken the last shot, maybe cut it to five or four," Moore said. "They were on the other end of the floor and she couldn't hear me. I've got a better job, I guess, of making sure we understand those situations.
"It was a big play, because we failed to score, they came down and hit a three in transition and now you're down 10 at halftime. (It's) a little bit of a demoralizing blow there."
The Wolfpack could at least take solace in the fact that the third quarter has been its best all season, having outscored the opposition by an average of 20.2 points per game.
And it did put up more points in the period than the Cardinals.
But it was only 17-13 and the four-point difference didn't put a major dent in a deficit that climbed to as many as 14 points in the second half.
State did eventually make a run, but never got closer than three on two occasions, the last coming at 49-46 with 7:35 remaining.
"All night long we were trying to dig ourselves out of a hole," Moore said.
Louisville came into the game having shot less than 35 percent from the floor in each of its two previous games, losses to Florida State and Syracuse. But on this night, the Cardinals were a vastly improved 26 of 54 (48.1 percent) while connecting on 7 of 18 3-pointers.
State, meanwhile, made just 32.3 percent of its shots and missed 12 of its first 13 shots from beyond the arc -- including an 0 for 6 performance by the usually reliable Aislinn Konig.
Complicating the Wolfpack's misery is that star center Cunane was equally ineffective inside. The 6-foot-5 sophomore went 1 of 12 from the floor with several of those shots blocked by Louisville's equally tall Kylee Shook -- who finished the game with seven.
Cunane did score 10 points, thanks to seven made free throws. But her only basket of the night came on a 3-pointer in the fourth quarter.
"We told (Shook) exactly what (Cunane) loves to do, which shoulder she likes to turn over," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "We said you've got to make her take contested shots, make her shoot over you."
Louisville benefitted from the return of Elizabethre Balogun, who missed the past two games while helping the Nigerian National Team qualify for this summer's Olympics. Although she scored nine points, to go along with seven rebounds, her big 3-pointer late helped put an end to State's comeback hopes.
Jazmine Jones led the Cardinals with 19 points while Evans, who is Cunane's main competition for ACC Player of the Year, finished with 14.
Although a win wouldn't have clinched the ACC regular season title for the Wolfpack, it would have given it a two-game lead (plus tiebreaker) on Louisville with five games remaining.
Now, the teams are tied with the Cardinals holding the head-to-head edge.
"Yeah, it's disappointing. Don't get me wrong," Moore said. "We really could have taken a great step tonight, but we're still tied for first and there's five games left. We've got a quick turnaround Sunday against Georgia Tech and we've got to be ready to play."