November 11, 2021 

What we learned from No. 1 South Carolina’s win over No. 5 N.C. State

South Carolina showed why it's the No. 1 team in women's college basketball, asserting its dominance on an N.C. State team that has some things to figure out

RALEIGH, N.C. – The atmosphere inside Reynolds Coliseum on Tuesday truly felt like one made for March.

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Two of the top five teams in the country were facing off, ESPN was broadcasting the game, N.C. State pep band played loud, briskly and with enthusiasm, and fans of the Gamecocks and Wolfpack bought every ticket available, filling the place up to the rafters – where N.C. State unfurled its second straight ACC championship banner.

But while everything around the game felt like something we’d see in the postseason, the product on the floor didn’t quite live up to the hype.

Simply put: N.C. State was not prepared for this contest. The Wolfpack were stuck in first gear, trapped in November mode. N.C. State’s best player did not play her best. It’s two heralded transfers failed to integrate themselves positively. And other players could not make up for injuries to two others.

And so, South Carolina’s bigs dominated. Their defense was suffocating. And at times, the Gamecocks did whatever they wanted, making themselves feel right at home at Reynolds as they pushed Elissa Cunane around and dared other members of the Wolfpack to make plays. They couldn’t – or at least, not enough, and not consistently.

Dawn Staley’s Gamecocks won comfortably over Wes Moore’s Wolfpack, 66-57.

Cunane a non-factor

Cunane is, unquestionably, one of the 10 best women’s college basketball players in the country. She has led N.C. State to back-to-back ACC titles, she was a second-team All-American selection last year, and she has twice been a finalist for the Lisa Leslie Award. Last season, she led the ACC in PER with a 35.3 rating, per Her Hoop Stats.

But against South Carolina, Cunane wasn’t able to impact the game. The Gamecocks were physical with her and made things extremely difficult for her.

A 6’5 center, Cunane was held scoreless in the first half and finished with just eight points on 4-of-11 shooting. Additionally, Cunane, who averaged 8.3 boards per game last season, grabbed just three rebounds. She also had two turnovers, four fouls and blocked no shots.

This is all to say if N.C. State wants to be mentioned among the elite teams in the sport, it needs more from Cunane in these marquee match-ups. The Wolfpack play a one-in, four-out system largely because of how talented Cunane is and how unstoppable she can be. In these games, she has to give the Wolfpack more.

Cunane will have the chance to prove herself over the next two months. N.C. State has a few other contests on its non-conference slate against fellow Top 25 teams in Maryland, Indiana and Georgia. If the Wolfpack want to be mentioned among the best, they have to perform well against the best. Let’s see how Cunane does in those three games.

Yes, but…

Elissa Cunane and Jakia Brown-Turner. Photo credit: N.C. State Twitter Account

We’ve gone over Cunane’s resume. Again, she is one of the best players in the country, and one of the nation’s most skilled post players.

But if she can’t score and rebound inside against South Carolina, who can?

Take a look at the Gamecocks’ roster. Three players are listed at 6’4 or taller, and Victaria Saxton is nearly right there too. For what she lacks in height, Saxton makes up for in skill and grit.

Aliyah Boston started at center for the Gamecocks on Tuesday. When she needed a breather, Kamilla Cardoso – last year’s Defensive Player of the Year in the ACC – came in. And when both were tired, or when the Gamecocks just wanted to pack the paint and crash the glass, Staley trotted out Laeticia Amihere, who made her NCAA region’s all-tournament team last season and spent the summer playing with Team Canada at the Olympics.

Most programs in women’s college basketball would consider themselves blessed to have one of those players. The Gamecocks are spoiled with three, and that fact might be what separates South Carolina from the other contending teams this season.

Against a good team in N.C. State, Boston, Cardoso and Amihere combined for 15 rebounds, six blocks, 19 points, two steals and two assists. South Carolina won the rebounding battle by five and outscored the Wolfpack in the paint by six.

South Carolina guards Zia Cooke and Destanni Henderson combined for 31 points, but these three bigs were crucial to the Gamecocks’ success and will be for the remainder of the season.

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Not a disaster for Wolfpack

The sky is not falling in Raleigh. Yes, they lost, but really, they were supposed to. This was No. 1 vs. No. 5; No. 1 won.

And despite a not-so-great performance from Cunane, other players performed well. Raina Perez carried the Wolfpack at times, scoring nine of their first 12 points. She finished with 18 points and three assists. And when Cunane couldn’t carry the team, Jakia Brown-Turner tried to step up, taking a team-high 16 shots. She sunk eight of them, finishing with 18 points, three boards and two assists.

Also, N.C. State didn’t get what it was expecting from its top two transfers in this game. Diamond Johnson of Rutgers and Madison Hayes of Mississippi State combined for four points on 2-of-13 shooting, four turnovers and five rebounds. Both players are far too talented to play like that all season. Johnson was a member of the 50-40-90 club at Rutgers last season and Hayes was an All-SEC Freshman Team selection. As the season progresses, they’ll get better and more comfortable in a new system, and they’ll contribute to N.C. State victories.

Finally, N.C. State played this game without Jada Boyd, last season’s Co-Sixth Player of the Year in the ACC. And Boyd, a tenacious and versatile defender with endless energy, was third on the team in rebounding last season with 5.9 per game. Would N.C. State have won if Boyd was healthy? Probably not, but she would have given the Wolfpack a better chance. Boyd, who injured her shooting hand during fall workouts, is expected to be back near the end of November. N.C. State also played this game with Kayla Jones still not quite at 100% from her off-season patella tendon surgery. Jones didn’t start but contributed seven points and four boards off the bench.

This N.C. State squad should look improved by March. If they want to compete with teams like South Carolina for Final Four bids, they’ll have to be.

Written by Mitchell Northam

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