February 17, 2022 

ACC notebook: N.C. State’s sluggish starts, Deja and Dunkin’

When a player gets free and drains a step-back three that's Amoore

DURHAM, N.C. — For the sixth time in the last eight ACC games, Elissa Cunane was held scoreless in the first quarter of a North Carolina State women’s basketball game. The latest was on Sunday, at Duke.

The preseason All-American – and last year, a second team All-American – is shooting 2-for-15 in first quarters over her last eight games, a 13.3% shooting clip. In those opening quarters, she’s scored just four points.

Those aren’t the type of numbers you’d expect from a player with Cunane’s bonafides. This spring, many expect her to be a first-round pick in the WNBA Draft. At nearly every N.C. State home game this season, at least one talent evaluator from the league has attended, sitting behind the baseline and studying her every move. On Sunday at Duke, Mike Petersen of the Atlanta Dream was in Durham to see her in-person again.

Cunane is averaging 13.2 points per-game this season – 3.1 points lower than what she posted last year. Her shooting percentages have also dipped, as have her rebounding totals. Over these last eight games, Cunane is averaging 11.2 points per-game on 44.7% shooting, and eight rebounds. Again, those numbers aren’t awful, it’s just not quite the statistics you’d expect from someone who is often billed as the most talented player on a team with legitimate Final Four aspirations.

The slow starts are a problem. And not just for Cunane. But for N.C. State as a whole.

Indeed, the Wolfpack are ranked fourth in the latest AP Poll and they’ve won 13 of their last 14 games since falling at home in overtime to Georgia on Dec. 16. And yes, in that stretch, they’ve topped the likes of Louisville and Georgia Tech, and won comfortably over rivals North Carolina and Duke.

But it’s hard to ignore how poorly N.C. State has started in some of these games.

In five of their last eight games, the Wolfpack have trailed after the first quarter five times. They’ve been behind on the scoreboard at halftime another five times.

“Maybe we need to start coming over the night before and staying in a hotel in Chapel Hill or Durham. Maybe we ought to make it normal, where we come over and shoot that morning. I don’t know,” N.C. State coach Wes Moore said with a laugh when that stat was relayed to him.

The good news is that they’ve won all of those games except for one – a Feb. 1 road contest at Notre Dame, which N.C. State played on just a day-and-a-half’s worth of rest.

Perhaps part of the reason why N.C. State has largely been able to weather the first half storm in most of those games is because they’re a team comprised mostly of veterans who can flip the switch in the second half. Junior wing Jakia Brown-Turner did this at Duke. After scoring just four points in the first half on 2 of 4 shooting, she scored 15 in the final two quarters on a perfect 7 of 7 shooting.

“It’s great having veterans. It’s almost like having extra coaches out there,” Moore said. “I wanted us to get off to a better start today, and we kind of did that (in the first quarter) and then here came Duke. We had some breakdowns defensively, gave up a few layups… I have total confidence in them that – you know, at some point – they’re going to get hot, get some stops and find a way to win.”

After trailing Duke by four points at the half on Sunday, the Wolfpack went on to win by 15.

But these slow starts have become a pattern now for N.C. State. They aren’t dominating early in games like a team with Final Four hopes should. If they aren’t careful, these sluggish stretches in the first halves could cost them, like it did at Notre Dame, and like it nearly did against Louisville, Virginia Tech and Boston College.

N.C. State’s second half efforts have mostly been enough to sneak away with wins lately. But they might not be when ACC title or a Final Four berth is on the line.

“We’ve got to put four quarters together,” Moore said. “Maybe I’m doing something wrong, not getting them as focused as they need to be. But with a veteran team, I hope they will take care of themselves – sometime.

“You just can’t keep digging a hole against the caliber of teams we’re playing.”


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Louisville duo sticking around

Louisville head coach Jeff Walz slaps hands with players and coaches of N.C. State on Jan. 20, 2022 in Raleigh, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Two Louisville seniors announced this week that they will return to the Cardinals next year for an extra season. Mykasa Robinson and Ahlana Smith will remain with Jeff Walz’s side through the 2022-23 season, thanks to the NCAA’s COVID-era ruling which made it so that the 2020-21 season didn’t count toward a player’s eligibility clock.

Robinson is the lone senior on Louisville’s roster this season that has spent each of the past four seasons with the Cardinals. Last season, she made the ACC’s All-Defensive Team. This season, she’s averaging a career-best 3.9 points per-game along with 3.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals. She’s also shooting a career-best 52.8% from the floor and is playing 20.5 minutes per-game.

Smith transferred into Louisville during the 2020 offseason after spending a season at Gulf Coast State. Before she arrived at the junior college, she began her collegiate career at UCLA. She’s playing 14.5 minutes per-game this season and averaging 5.2 points. She had one of her best games of the season in the Cardinals’ win over UConn on Dec. 19, scoring 11 points on 3 of 5 shooting in just 19 minutes.

Three other Louisville seniors – Kianna Smith, Emily Engstler and Liz Dixon – should all have one more year of eligibility remaining too because of the COVID rule, but its unclear if they will return for an extra season. Engstler, an ACC Player of the Year candidate, would likely be selected in the WNBA Draft this spring, should she choose to enter it.

Dunkin’ Deja

UNC’s Deja Kelly gets set on defense at Duke on Jan. 27, 2022 in Durham, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

Deja Kelly runs on Dunkin’, apparently.

The donut and coffee company announced Wednesday that it had signed Kelly – a North Carolina sophomore guard – to an NIL deal. Kelly, along with Georgia track star Matthew Boling, are the first two college athletes Dunkin’ has signed to NIL deals.

As part of the agreement, Kelly will share her “experiences” with Dunkin’ across her social media platforms and be outfitted in “exclusive Team Dunkin’ merch for on and off the field,” according to a news release. As part of Kelly’s deal, Dunkin’ is also donating $5,000 to the Velle Cares Foundation for its “Single Mothers Salute” event. The foundation is led by NC Central men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton. Kelly was raised by a single mother.

Also, as part of the deal, Kelly favorites will be on the menu at Dunkin’ location on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill next week. Her favorite drink? A large cold brew with sweet cold foam, French vanilla swirl, whole milk, sugar and less ice. And her go-to for eats is a toasted sausage, egg and cheese croissant.

This isn’t the first NIL deal for Kelly. She also signed a deal earlier this season with Outback Steakhouse. An All-ACC Freshmen Team selection a year ago, her stats have improved nearly across the board. She’s averaging 15.9 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists per-game, and she’s ninth in the ACC in defensive win shares (1.2) and fourth in scoring.

Back in October, UNC head coach Courtney Banghart talked at ACC Media Day about how playing for the Carolina brand could make its players more marketable for NIL opportunities.

“The more marketable you are, the more you can make money. And Carolina is one of the most giant brands in the country, and then you’ve got the Jordan Brand – probably the most up and coming, or the most hot,” Banghart said. “So, you put Carolina’s brand with Jordan’s brand, and then you put in a program that I’m very confident in, that can continue to make major progress. You look at it and say – I can at least assure you of marketability. And you’ve got to do your half and contribute and do things the right way… I’m going to sit there and help (the players) think about how to maximize that. I don’t know the answers yet, but I know that I can help you think critically about it.”

In addition to that Carolina blue and that Jumpman logo, it also helps that the Tar Heels are pretty good this season, ranked No. 24 in the latest AP Top 25 Poll, and leading the nation in margin of victory per-game at an average of 20.2 points. UNC also leads the nation in opponent points per-play, allowing just 0.64, according to HerHoopStats.

Notes

Virginia Tech’s Georgia Amoore plays in the 2021 ACC Tournament on March 4 in Greensboro, N.C. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)
  • Georgia Amoore has been pretty awesome for Virginia Tech lately and was named ACC Co-Player of the Week on Monday. The Aussie sophomore also made SportsCenter’s Top 10 recently for her signature play in the Hokies’ win over Georgia Tech – a crossover step-back three-pointer that put her defender on skates. Over her last six games, Amoore is averaging 15.3 points, two rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 45% from the floor and 41.3% from behind the arc. Virginia Tech’s recent wins over then-ranked No. 11 Georgia Tech and No. 23 North Carolina were the first time in program history it had beaten two ranked opponents consecutively.
  • Nell Fortner on N.C. State’s Raina Perez: “That Perez, she’s so good. And she’s so underrated. She’s fantastic. She’s hard to guard – shifty, crafty with the ball in her hand, getting around screens and hesitation dribbles. She can kill you from behind the three and she can get to the hole. She’s really, really hard to defend.”
  • According to a report from Mike Curtis at Syracuse.com, Orange forward Eboni Walker has been medically ruled out for the rest of the season. A transfer from Arizona State, Walker featured in Syracuse’s first six games, averaging 22.3 minutes, but hasn’t seen the court since. She was averaging 4.2 points per-game.
  • UNC Wilmington announced the firing of coach Karen Barefoot on Monday, creating the first head coach opening in the state of North Carolina this season. Barefoot went 50-83 as the head coach of the Seahawks across five seasons. UNCW had just one winning season in CAA play – 11-7 in 2018-19 – under Barefoot. They are currently 3-18 overall as former Delaware coach Tina Martin takes the reins in the interim. When UNCW had an opening for its men’s basketball head coach in 2020, it hired an up-and-coming assistant in N.C. State’s Takayo Siddle, who had 10 years of experience as an assistant Division I coach in the state. Should UNCW choose the same route for its women’s coach, it may poach a rising assistant from an ACC staff. One name to watch is North Carolina native Brittany Morris – she’s currently in her second stint on the staff at N.C. State and was an assistant coach at UNCW for three seasons. For two of those seasons, she was UNCW’s recruiting coordinator and helped the Seahawks land the CAA’s best classes in back-to-back years. She has also coached at Virginia Tech and East Carolina.
  • Oh, and Aisha Sheppard just took a Sharpie to the ACC record books. Pretty good company there.

Written by Mitchell Northam

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