‘We want more’: How the NC State women plan to approach a new basketball season

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Wes Moore met with his seniors in the offseason to design their latest rings.

The N.C. State women’s basketball team won its second straight ACC tournament title last year and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the third straight season.

Moore asked the seniors if they wanted to get that accomplishment engraved somewhere on the ring. They politely declined. The players didn’t want to be reminded of the times they’ve come up short. Granted, three straight trips to the Sweet 16 would be plenty to keep a lot of programs happy, but this veteran bunch in Raleigh has higher goals than the third round.

“Our goals, yes we want to win another ACC tournament, but it’s bigger, it has to be bigger, forward Kayla Jones told the media at ACC Tip-Off in Charlotte. “I’m tired of going to just the Sweet 16. We want more and that’s what we prepare for everyday.”

The feeling by Jones is felt throughout the locker room and the expectations to go further than the round of 16 will surely be on the team this season.

The Pack was a No. 1 seed last year and returned everyone back who was a major contributor on that team. For good measure, Moore added two big time transfers in guards Diamond Johnson and Madison Hayes. In the offseason, seniors Jones, Kai Crutchfield and Rena Perez all chose to take advantage of an extra year granted by the NCAA.

All the pieces are aligned for a deep run and everyone knows it. So many people, outside the program, expect it.

No pressure, right?

“You don’t really talk about that a whole lot,” Moore said. “You focus on, I hate to say it, but the process. Just preparing, so none of that’s changed. It’s what we’ve always done and I don’t think anyone is going to put any higher expectations on our team than ourselves. We were disappointed in the ending.”

North Carolina State center Elissa Cunane (33) is pressured by Indiana forward Mackenzie Holmes, right, and Indiana forward Aleksa Gulbe (10) during the first half of a college basketball game in the Sweet Sixteen round of the women’s NCAA tournament at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Saturday, March 27, 2021.
North Carolina State center Elissa Cunane (33) is pressured by Indiana forward Mackenzie Holmes, right, and Indiana forward Aleksa Gulbe (10) during the first half of a college basketball game in the Sweet Sixteen round of the women’s NCAA tournament at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Saturday, March 27, 2021.

The ending, a 73-70 loss to Indiana, is one Moore and company have put behind them, but realize the only remedy is to cut down the nets in Minnesota in April. That’s a lot of pressure, but Moore has the pieces.

It started with the return of his seniors, aided by the group of transfers. It also helps to have Elissa Cunane, the senior center who will be an All-American candidate.

A year older, with a roster full of tournament experience, puts an almost unfair expectation of Final Four or bust on the squad. But they expect the same for themselves.

“I think nobody believes in us more than we do and nobody wants to go further than we do,” Cunane said. “I think just coming in day in and day out and knowing that’s our internal motivation for that and just preparing for that everyday.”

Cunane, an ESPN All-American and All-ACC first-team member is the centerpiece of the Wolfpack machine. She led the team with 16.3 points per game a year ago and was the ACC Tournament MVP.

Cunane is one of four players returning who averaged 11 points or more. Perez was knocking on the door at 9.5 points per game. Johnson, who transferred from Rutgers, averaged 17.6 as a freshman last season. Hayes scored 4.7 per game at Mississippi State and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. Moore will have one of those good problems in trying to sort out minutes.

“It’ll be fun trying to mesh it all together and keep everyone happy,” Moore said. “That’ll be my next challenge.”

N.C. State’s Kayla Jones (25) is introduced during Primetime with the Pack at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, October 14, 2021.
N.C. State’s Kayla Jones (25) is introduced during Primetime with the Pack at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, October 14, 2021.

Tough road ahead

Getting back to the point, and beyond, was the main reason Jones returned.

She injured her knee in the first-round win over North Carolina A&T, and was a spectator the next two games. Jones had off season surgery and said made her decision to return easy. But she has no regrets about being back.

“I’m glad (I came back) because we want another run at it,” Jones said. “We were right there, a number one seed.”

Moore has always called Jones the “glue” of the program and acknowledged it hurt not having her out there. Perez, Crutchfield and Jones coming back adds to the expectations.

“It was huge,”Cunane said. “They are veterans who know everything about N.C. State, they know how to work the system. I think getting them back and their leadership back, has really changed the dynamic of the team. They really brought all the younger kids up in leading them.”

The younger kids might have to watch and learn early behind this veteran bunch. The group, more than likely a preseason top five team, will be tested early. The first game of the season is at home versus South Carolina, another team that should be ranked in the top five. The non-conference schedule also includes Maryland, Florida and a rematch with Indiana. The ACC will be an entirely different animal. N.C. State will get everyone’s best shot on any given night. And that’s fine with Moore.

“I think they are still hungry,” Moore said. “They better be. We’re playing an unbelievable schedule for non conference. Then you jump in the ACC, we’re going to have a bullseye on our back every night and we have to be able to handle that. New territory no doubt, that hopefully we can handle.”

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