February 1, 2021 

ACC preview: Cunane, Evans key in Top 5 clash between N.C. State, Louisville

The stars will decide the outcome between the ACC's best

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N.C. State’s Elissa Cunane takes a shot against North Florida on Nov. 25, 2020 at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

For the second year in a row, the women’s basketball teams at Louisville and N.C. State will meet on the hardwood while both are ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25 Poll. This year’s clash tips off at 7 p.m. ET Monday night on ESPN2 inside the KFC Yum! Center.

Last year, in Raleigh, the ninth-ranked Cardinals upset the No. 4 Wolfpack, 66-59. The key then was Kylee Shook, last year’s ACC Defensive Player of the Year, who frustrated and smothered N.C. State All-American Elissa Cunane, holding her to 1-of-12 shooting from the floor.

Shook is gone — off to the WNBA with the New York Liberty — but all eyes will be on Cunane again. She can be the difference-maker for the Wolfpack.

When now-ranked No. 1 Louisville (16-0, 9-0 ACC) hosts No. 4 N.C. State (11-1, 6-1 ACC) on Monday night, it’ll be the first game the star junior center has played in since Jan. 3, last taking the court in a win against Boston College. In that contest, Cunane scored a season-high 24 points on 9-of-9 shooting to go along with eight boards and three steals.

After that game, N.C. State went on a 21-day pause due to a positive COVID-19 test within the program and subsequent contact tracing. Cunane remained in COVID protocols when the team resumed play on Jan. 24. Last Thursday, her absence was apparent as the Wolfpack — then ranked No. 2 — fell on the road in overtime to Virginia Tech.

Camille Hobby put forth an admirable effort in Cunane’s absence, totaling 19 points and nine rebounds in the loss — both career highs for the sophomore from Jacksonville, Florida — but the numbers in the box score didn’t matter much for her.

“It doesn’t matter how many points you score if you lose,” Hobby said. “Our coaches are going to watch the film and get everything together. We’ll be ready when we play Louisville.”

While Hobby played some of her best basketball against the Hokies, the Wolfpack still would’ve rather had an All-American in the paint than not.

N.C. State head coach Wes Moore is expecting to have Cunane available on Monday. While she might not be 100% in shape — having not played in nearly a month — he knows that having her is a luxury. He knows that her presence makes his team better.

“I think there’s a real good chance, unless she has a setback,” Moore said Thursday of Cunane’s availability vs. Louisville. “The tough part is… she was home for 10 days, having to quarantine and stay away from everybody. So, we’ll see.

“But yea, I’d rather have whatever we can get of Elissa than not have her, for sure.”

Louisville does not have the benefit of throwing a 6-foot-5 tough-as-nails banger like Shook at Cunane this season. In fact, if the undefeated Cardinals have one weakness, it’s that they’re a little short on height and a bit thin on depth in the post. Louisville has four players who are above 6-foot-1, but two of them — freshmen Ramani Parker and Malea Williams — aren’t regular contributors to the rotation.

Sure, Jeff Walz has Olivia Cochrane at his disposal in the starting lineup, but while the 6-foot-3 freshman has played well, it’s unclear if she’s capable of scoring on and defending against a player of Cunane’s caliber.

For Louisville, the player most equipped to disrupt Cunane might be Elizabeth Dixon, who has emerged recently as a crucial player in the Cardinals’ rotation. A 6-foot-5 forward from Memphis, Tennessee, Dixon has tallied a combined 40 points, 17 rebounds and four steals over her last three games.

“Liz can shoot the ball well. She’s been putting in a lot of work,” said teammate Dana Evans. “And I think it’s definitely paying off for her. She’s been stepping up huge for us. She carried us through the third quarter (vs. Miami last Tuesday), making free throws being physical and she’s really good on the offensive rebounds… She’s somebody that we rely on to do a lot of the little things that sometimes doesn’t get noticed.”

Dixon was a starter and made the All-ACC Freshman team in her 2018-19 season at Georgia Tech. Since transferring to Louisville, she’s started just six times. But that number, to her, is insignificant compared to the one in the column for win totals.

“At first it was really difficult, because you know, being so used to starting and then not starting at all, but I’ve learned to embrace it and just learned to watch what’s going on,” Dixon said. “So, when I come into the game, I can be an instant offense, like an instant factor in the game and not make the same mistakes that what was in front of me.”

Louisville’s Dana Evans faces N.C. State on Feb. 13, 2020 in Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Of course, the battle in the paint between the bigs might not matter all that much if Dana Evans has her way with N.C. State’s perimeter defenders. Kai Crutchfield and Raina Perez will have to put forth their best efforts to contain the reigning ACC Player of the Year — and neither N.C. State guard has a particularly decent defensive rating. Evans is averaging 19.5 points, 4.4 assists and 2.8 rebounds per-game this season while shooting 45.8% from the floor and 38.1% from three-point range.

Evans hit the game-winning lay-up in Louisville’s win over Wake Forest last Sunday and scored the final eight points — including six consecutive made free throws — for the Cardinals in their tight victory over Miami on Tuesday.

If not for Evans’ heroics, the Cardinals could have seen those recent one-possession victories against Wake Forest and Miami flip the other way. According to HerHoopStats, Evans has 4.1 offensive win shares this season, which is seventh-best in the nation. She’s also fourth in the ACC in usage percentage with a 29.7% mark.

“Obviously, that’s what I do. Whatever it takes,” Evans said after the Miami win. “Whether that’s getting to the free throw line, because obviously my jump-shot was off again tonight. But I’m just doing what I need to do to help this team win.”

This is to say, while the Cardinals are an impressive 16-0, they’ve shown they can be beaten. The Demon Deacons and Hurricanes nearly pulled it off. N.C. State might be the team that can close the deal.

“Obviously, another big challenge,” Moore said of facing Louisville. “You’re going to have to play unbelievably well to have a chance to win, especially at their place. It’s going to be about defense and rebounding and trying to keep the score manageable where you have a chance to win the game.”

And Louisville is ready for whatever the Wolfpack can throw at them.

Said Evans: “We just have to be mentally focused and mentally prepared that everybody’s going to give us their best shot.”

Written by Mitchell Northam

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