No. 3 NC State women top No. 21 Va. Tech, reach title game

Mar 4, 2022, 9:01 PM | Updated: Mar 5, 2022, 2:09 pm

Virginia Tech guard Azana Baines (15) blocks the shot of North Carolina State center Elissa Cunane (33) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Atlantic Coast Conference women's tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Saturday, March 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Lynn Hey)

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina State is back in familiar territory, playing for a trophy.

Elissa Cunane had 20 points and 13 rebounds and the third-ranked Wolfpack used a strong second half to pull away from No. 21 Virginia Tech 70-55 on Saturday and return to the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship game.

Jada Boyd added 16 points and Raina Perez had nine points for NC State (28-3), which is seeking its third straight tournament title. The Wolfpack will face sixth-seeded Miami on Sunday after the Hurricanes knocked off third-seeded Notre Dame 57-54.

“We are excited to be back,” Cunane said. “It feels a little different because we’ve had experience now in big games. But we still have to have the same mentality. … We can’t say ‘We’ve won it before, so we’re going to win it again.’ We have to really respect who we are playing.”

Kayan Traylor had 18 points for Virginia Tech (23-9), which played without star center Elizabeth Kitley. The ACC women’s player of the year injured her right shoulder in the Hokies’ 87-80 quarterfinal win over North Carolina on Friday. Kitley participated in warmups, but did not play.

“Elizabeth came out and gave it a go (in warmups) and she wanted to play,” Virginia Tech coach Kenny Brooks said. “But we felt it was in our best interest to sit her today so she can rest and not have a setback.”

Without the 6-foot-6 Kitley in the middle, the Hokies faced a severe size disadvantage.

The Wolfpack tried to take advantage early, pounding the ball inside to Cunane, but mostly came up empty. Cunane was 3 of 11 from the field in the first half, turned the ball over twice and the Wolfpack only led 31-27 at the break as the Hokies closed the first half on a 6-0 run.

But NC State coach Wes Moore moved Cunane from the low post to the high post for a portion of the second half and the Wolfpack began to take control. Moore called it a “role reversal” as it allowed power forward Boyd more room to maneuver in the low post while freeing up Cunane to make open 3s.

Cunane ignited the crowd by knocking down a 3 from the top of the key to start a 13-0 run. Boyd, who finished 7 of 10 from the field, followed by scoring on a spin move in the lane and Jakia Brown-Taylor canned a 3 with the third quarter winding down to give NC State a 44-34 lead after three quarters.

Perez opened the fourth quarter with back-to-back baskets to push the lead to 16.

“If you decide to help and double down, Elissa is usually going to make you pay” from outside, Moore said.

Cunane put the final touches on the win when she launched a 3 from the top of the key that hit the front rim, bounced high off the glass and dropped through the net while she was running back down the court with her tongue sticking out and a wide smile on her face.

Given the height discrepancy, Virginia Tech tried to press and also double-team while playing zone. That led to a 49-23 edge for NC State on the boards.

BIG PICTURE

Virginia Tech: Despite playing without Kitley and Cayla King, who sprained her ankle against Clemson, the Hokies stayed competitive with one of the nation’s top teams for three quarters. That’s an encouraging sign.

NC State: The Wolfpack are likely to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s title game.

BOYD’S PLAY

After a slow start the season, Boyd has become a difference-maker.

“The last month or so she has been playing at a whole different level,” Moore said. “She makes a big difference for us and can help us on both ends of the floor.”

TWO GAME PLANS

Brooks said he had two game plans entering the game — one with Kitley playing and another one without, which forced his team to adjust on the fly. Brooks said he is proud of how his team adapted.

He also hopes to have Kitley and King back for the NCAA Tournament given the week-and-a-half layoff coming up.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Awaits its NCAA Tournament seeding.

NC State: Plays for its third straight ACC title on Sunday.

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More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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