November 22, 2023 

How did NC State follow up its signature win over UConn?

Wes Moore: 'I want them to be like McDonald's fries'

RALEIGH, N.C. — After going unranked in the preseason poll and entering the season with unusually low expectations surrounding its 2023-24 campaign, NC State women’s basketball made national headlines by taking down then-No. 2 UConn 92-81 in its second game of the season. The Pack likely felt more pressure coming out of the UConn game than it did coming in — with such a big win under its belt, the pressure was on to prove that it wasn’t a fluke.

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The win over the Huskies marked a number of impressive milestones for the Pack — the red-and-white broke its six-game losing streak to the Huskies and rose to No. 14 in the AP poll as a result.

Junior guard Saniya Rivers had arguably the best game of her collegiate career against the Huskies, becoming the first player in 25 years to tally 30+ points, 10+ rebounds and 5+ assists against UConn. Rivers’ efforts earned her both NCAA and ACC Player of the Week accolades, establishing her and the rest of the Wolfpack’s potential to be a major threat in the ACC.

But despite these admirable feats, any seasoned fan knows that most sports — especially basketball — are completely dependent on matchups. That is, a win over a No. 2 team doesn’t necessarily translate to a win over a No. 15 team, or even a No. 64 team. There’s also the fact that college basketball yields stunning upsets almost weekly — such as unranked Kansas State’s defeat of then-No. 2 Iowa four days after the Pack topped UConn — making it all too easy for teams to fade from the spotlight if they can’t consistently perform at a high level.

“March Madness just honestly came earlier this year,” said junior guard Saniya Rivers. “You see everyone getting upset. UConn got upset, LSU, Iowa it’s just crazy — the name does not matter at all.”

With that being said, taking a look at how NC State performed in its next two games can give us some better insight into what its win over UConn really means for the Wolfpack and if the team has what it takes to remain competitive in the ever-changing college basketball landscape.

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The Pack breezes past Elon

Three days after taking down the Huskies, NC State hosted the Phoenix at Reynolds Coliseum in a game that played out pretty much as you’d expect a match between a No. 14 team and a smaller, unranked program to go — the Pack obliterated Elon, 90-35.

The Wolfpack defended the Phoenix exceptionally well right out of the gate. The red-and-white jumped out to a 7-0 lead at the start of the first quarter and never took its foot off of the gas. A 16-point run that spanned over four minutes put NC State up 24-8, and after a couple more buckets, the red-and-white began the second quarter up 28-12. But the Pack’s monster defensive effort didn’t stop there — the hosts went on to hold Elon to just two points in the second quarter, the least amount of points it’s allowed in one quarter since 2017.

As the lopsided score indicates, NC State carried this intensity through the rest of the game. While the 2021-22 team finishes second in offensive efficiency in the nation, it was the 32nd-ranked defense that helped ensure the Wolfpack finished an overtime loss away from the Final Four. Carrying this performance forward on both ends will be vital to their chances of reaching Cleveland in April 2024.

On the offensive end, the Wolfpack had three players — junior guard Aziaha James, graduate forward Mimi Collins and senior guard Madison Hayes — score in the double digits while Rivers tallied a career-high seven assists. The red-and-white also shot 17-17 from the charity stripe and outrebounded the Phoenix 57-20.

To the untrained eye, the game went without a hitch. But head coach Wes Moore argued otherwise.
“As a coach, you want every outing to get better,” Moore said. “And, you know, again [we] did a lot of good things but still a lot of things we got to fix and clean up.”

Moore’s argument is supported by a season-high 16 turnovers, 13 of which came in the first half. This number should set off alarm bells for any team, but can be easy to gloss over in the wake of a 50+ point victory. However, it’ll be critical for the Pack to work to decrease this number because it won’t be able to get away with 13 first-half turnovers against most of the teams it’s set to face this season, especially in ACC play.

Moore also stressed the importance of learning from past mistakes and cleaning up the weaker areas of their game, namely understanding when to push pace and when to hold back.

“I think that’s the biggest thing, just being under control,” Moore said. “And knowing when we got the numbers and when we can test and attack them, and when we got to downshift, back it out and live to play another another day.”

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Rams expose NC State’s weaknesses

Rhode Island was an entirely different beast, nearly beating the Pack on its home court and giving the team the wakeup call it needed to fine tune its fundamental skills after a slim 67-58 victory. Although they’re currently unranked, the Rams boasted a 26-7 record for the 2022-23 season and are the favorites to win the Atlantic 10 conference for the second year in a row.

NC State played from behind for the majority of the contest, leading for just under thirty seconds near the start of the first quarter and not taking back the lead until almost nine minutes into the third quarter. While trailing as a No. 14 team isn’t ideal, the Pack’s ability to sustain a strong effort from behind and ultimately steal the victory will serve it well when it matches up against top-ranked teams such as No. 9 Virginia Tech and No. 13 Notre Dame. Against Rhode Island, the red-and-white outscored the visitors 21-10 in the fourth quarter to pull out the win, displaying admirable resilience.

But although the comeback win was impressive in its own right, it’s important to look at the aspects of play that got the Pack into that hole in the first place.

For many reasons, the first half was difficult to watch, and you could read it all over Moore’s face. The Rams easily exposed holes in NC State’s defense, whipping the ball around the perimeter and passing into and out of the post to get the red-and-white out of position and set up opportunities for 3-point shots and drives to the rim.

The Rams’ offensive showing, while admirable, wasn’t a result of superior talent or size, it was simply a matter of outworking the Wolfpack. Rhode Island was quicker on its feet, better at anticipating and quicker to the ball. If the Wolfpack doesn’t tighten up its man defense, notoriously talented playmakers like Hokie guard Georgia Amoore and Notre Dame guard Olivia Miles will pick apart the Pack.

NC State moved to zone defense in an attempt to prevent penetration, but this move was less than ideal because the Pack is much less active out of the zone. The red-and-white is much more successful when it’s able to turn defense into offense, but it can be difficult to create these opportunities out of a zone. Additionally, dropping back into a zone won’t always be an option against better teams. Rhode Island shot 4-for-16 from beyond the arc, but when the Pack matches up against top-tier ACC teams that shoot nearly 40% from three later in the season, it’s more than likely to get burned if it goes into a zone.

On the other end of the floor, Rhode Island center Tenin Magassa terrorized the Pack for the duration of the first half. Over the course of the game, Magassa totaled five blocks and forced the Wolfpack to settle for outside shots in the first twenty minutes of play. It wasn’t until the second half that NC State began to attack more effectively, drawing fouls on Magassa. The Rams’ center accumulated four personal fouls, forcing head coach Tammi Reiss to limit her time on the defensive end of floor towards the end of the game which opened up even more space for the Pack to score inside.

The Wolfpack’s initial difficulty with handling Magassa raises concerns with how it’ll handle bigger, more skilled centers — namely Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley, who NC State will face twice in the regular season. However, if the red-and-white continues to develop the adjustments it made to counter Magassa’s strong presence, it’ll likely fare well in the paint going forward.

Despite the close call against the Rams, the Wolfpack rose to No. 10 in the AP poll this week, continuing its upward trajectory.

More [Moore?] tests to come

Both Moore and his players attributed the majority of their struggles against Elon and Rhode Island to the Wolfpack’s failure to approach each game with the level of intensity that it brought to the UConn game.

“I definitely want them to, you know, be ready to play and have respect for everyone that we encounter,” Moore said. “Like my analogy I’ve used a million times, I want them to be like McDonald’s fries. No matter where you go, you know what you’re getting. I want our team to be like that no matter what day it is, who we’re playing, where we’re playing. We want the same results.”

NC State’s decreased intensity against teams that aren’t thought to be deserving of as much respect as UConn exposed fundamental weaknesses — such as not taking care of the ball, an inability to properly rotate on defense and difficulty with strong defenders in the paint — that aren’t incredibly difficult to fix, they just demand constant attention. It’s imperative that the Pack doesn’t fall into a bad habit of playing sloppy against “lesser” teams because those same bad habits are bound to show up in games where the Wolfpack can’t afford even the smallest mistakes.

They’ll need that effort in consecutive games against Kentucky, Cincinnati and Colorado, vanquisher of LSU, this Thursday through Saturday as well.

But the Pack’s win over the Huskies was certainly a testament to the fact that NC State is capable of beating any team in the country. Whether or not that translates into wins on the team’s record is entirely dependent on its ability to execute, consistently show up and pay meticulous attention to the minute details that’ll make or break games against more talented schools. Defeating UConn was by no means a stroke of luck, but it’s also no excuse for the Wolfpack to take its foot off the gas.

Written by Jenna Cuniowski

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