How the Wolfpack won
RALEIGH, N.C. – Elissa Cunane erupted off her seat on the bench and let out a scream. Jada Rice started yelling and clapping. Most of the N.C. State sideline was celebrating – just about everyone besides an unfazed Wes Moore — because Kai Crutchfield had just hit another three-pointer.
The No. 13 Wolfpack had a four-point lead over the No. 9 Maryland Terrapins with just more than five minutes to play. Crutchfield would continue to do her part in growing the lead and N.C. State eventually sealed up the victory against their old ACC rival.
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In the Big Ten-ACC Challenge on Thursday evening in a rocking Reynolds Coliseum, the Wolfpack out-muscled the Terps to win 66-59 in front of an announced crowd of 4,033 fans. Crutchfield led the Wolfpack on the scoreboard, racking up 19 points to go along with three assists and two rebounds.
“We’re excited about the win. Hopefully we can learn from some of the things we can do better,” Wolfpack head coach Wes Moore said. “It’s a good win for our program… We needed a win like this. Hopefully this teaches us a lot about ourselves and prepares us for the size, athleticism and pure talent we’re going to see later on down the road.”
Crutchfield was the ‘x-factor’
Coming into the game, Maryland head coach Brenda Frese knew that Crutchfield was going to have a say in who won the game. The Terps were conscious of her, but couldn’t stop the 5-foot-9 junior from Raleigh.
“We said that she was really the x-factor,” Frese said of Crutchfield. “We really wanted to take Aislinn Konig out of the game. We felt like if we could really wear her out, they would struggle some at that guard position, but (Crutchfield) was sensational. I thought she was able to negate us really putting a lot on Konig to make a huge difference. She was tough, on both ends of the floor. It was impressive to watch, not fun to see. She’s talented.”
Crutchfield has an increased role this season with the Wolfpack. She started in 20 of the 33 games she played in last season, playing 28.4 minutes per-game, but she’s a full-time starter now and playing more than 30 minutes per-game. And with her increased responsibility, her game has risen too.
Last year, Crutchfield shot 36.7 percent from the floor and 35.3 percent from behind the arc. This year, those marks are up to 46.6 percent and 43.5 percent, respectively, nearly 10 percent up in each stat. She’s also averaging more rebounds, assists and points per-game. Crutchfield has also become a go-to player for the Wolfpack in crunch-time.
“We always look for Kai,” Elissa Cunane said.
“She just steps up at game time,” Moore said of Crutchfield. “I’m proud of her. She’s come a long way.”
Crutchfield seems to have her best games against N.C. State’s best opponents. Last week in Hawaii, she dropped 23 points, three assists and four rebounds in a win over Texas, which was ranked in the AP Poll at the start of the season. She also had 12 points and five rebounds in a road win over Saint Mary’s.
After hitting that three-pointer with about five minutes left to put the Wolfpack up by four points, Crutchfield continued working to seal the game up. On Maryland’s next possession, she grabbed a rebound off a Kaila Charles miss, then sprinted the other way to dish an assist to Kayla Jones.
With 2:47 left, Crutchfield connected on another three-pointer to put the Wolfpack up by seven, then sank a lay-up on their next possession to push them ahead by nine points.
“I was just trying to take what the defense gave me. Of course, I have to give credit to my teammates for setting me up. Just going off their screens and looking for those opportunities,” Crutchfield said. “Maryland is a very challenging team… Their defensive mindset was very aggressive.”
Rebounding, post play was the difference
Aside from Crutchfield’s stat line, the numbers that jump off the box score from this game are this: N.C. State had more turnovers (28) than made baskets (26) and still won, by seven points.
That’s largely due to how absolutely dominant they were on the boards. The Wolfpack outrebounded the Terps 51-27, a +24 margin. Elissa Cunane and Kayla Jones had 29 rebounds combined, which was two more than Maryland had as a team. The post duo also combined for 27 points and four blocks.
“The rebounding, they really exposed us in,” Frese said. “Elissa was terrific out there. Really dominant when you talk about the physicality inside. And they let both teams play. When you look at the free throw attempts, they really let it be as physical as it could be.”
The lead-up to the game was billed as match-up between two phenomenal and promising post players in Cunane and Maryland’s Shakira Austin. Both are sophomores, both had impressive freshmen seasons and both were named to the Leslie Award watchlist to start the year.
But Austin fell into foul trouble early – picking up her second early in the second quarter — and largely struggled to make a meaningful impact on the game. She finished with seven points on 3-of-11 shooting, five rebounds and one steal in 20 minutes of play.
The night seemed to be going the same way for Cunane too, but she got rolling in the second half, scoring 12 of her 16 points in the final two quarters. That was partly due to a change in approach from Moore, who switched things up a bit so his guards weren’t driving as much and instead feeding Cunane.
“We talked about at halftime how we had to get (Cunane) touches. They switched a lot, so we wanted to get a matchup that was more favorable,” Moore said. “In the first half, I thought our guards were trying to attack a little bit too much against the post instead of getting the ball to the post on the guard. In the second half, they did a much better job.”
Even when the guards struggled to put them in a position to score, Cunane and Jones both got a decent amount of touches and shot attempts off offensive rebounds too. They combined for seven offensive boards and – as a team – N.C. State ended up having more offensive boards (19) than Maryland had defensive boards (14). Again, the Wolfpack were just commanding and superior on the glass. N.C. State outscored Maryland 16-5 on second-chance buckets too.
“It was a little hard to get touches in the paint,” Cunane said. “So, just crashing the boards was where we were able to score a lot of times.”
Added Jones: “Coach really harps on crashing the boards and then to box out. We knew the type of rebounder Kaila Charles was and then (Austin), so we just needed to box them out and keep them off the glass.”
Turnovers a positive for Maryland, concern for N.C. State
One bright spot for Maryland was their relentless defense. The Terps pursued the ball and were determined to make things chaotic for the Wolfpack’s guards.
When a team forces its opponent into 28 turnovers, they usually win. Had Maryland not been so outmatched on the glass, they likely would have.
“Defensively, I thought we did some really good things,” Frese said. “We didn’t execute as well, converting those turnovers into points.”
Indeed. Maryland did score 20 points off N.C. State’s turnovers, but as a whole shot just 33.8 percent from the floor for the game. Maryland struggled to get to the charity stripe too, attempting just nine free throws.
Still, they did make things difficult for Wolfpack point guard Aislinn Konig, who finished the night with six turnovers and making just 3-of-9 shots from the floor.
“I think that’s kind of been the identity we’re trying to adopt on the defensive end, just trying to force as many turnovers as we can and make the other team uncomfortable,” Terps’ guard Taylor Mikesell said. “I think just being more aggressive off those turnovers would be the biggest things for us right now.”
But the Terps couldn’t frustrate Crutchfield, and she burned them. To make things more difficult for Maryland, freshman point guard Ashely Owusu had an off night. She had 10 points, nine assists and three rebounds, but also missed seven shots and committed seven turnovers. Before facing the Wolfpack, Owusu had a 5-to-1 assist-turnover ratio – one of the best marks in the country – and hadn’t had a turnover in her two previous games.
“I think we learned off the South Carolina loss and I think we’re going to learn coming off this loss as well,” Mikesell said. “It’s not necessarily the loss that matters, it’s how you bounce back from it.”
Maryland has faced two ranked teams so far this season and lost both of those games. They won’t face another until the end of the month when they host Michigan, who is currently ranked 24th. The Terps also had a close-call this season with James Madison, but have largely dominated their other opponents.
It’s clear that Maryland is a tournament team, but what their potential is, how far they can go, remains clouded.
Frese said after the game that Thursday night felt like it “was built for March.” But if the Terps get out-muscled and out-rebounded like in March, no matter who the opponent is, they’ll lose again. They have problems to solve, and so does N.C. State.
“We got to get better at taking care of the basketball,” Moore said. “We got plenty of things to clean up. It’s nice when you can learn from a win though instead of a loss.”
N.C. State won’t face another test like Maryland again for about a month. They have a stretch of games against Virginia, Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Notre Dame and No. 8 Florida State in early January.
But so far, with a 9-0 record, the Wolfpack look like the real deal and a contender for the ACC crown.
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