RALEIGH, N.C. – In her second contest this season, against her rivals in Carolina blue, Elissa Cunane could not – and would not – be stopped.
Seventeen days earlier at Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill, Cunane was battered, bruised and flustered by North Carolina’s defense. The sophomore shot just 3-of-11 from the field for a lowly eight points and turned the ball over five times in N.C. State’s first defeat of the year. Cunane would not allow that outcome to repeat itself Sunday night, inside what might be the rowdiest gymnasium in the ACC.
The 6-foot-5 native of Summerfield, North Carolina took similar punishment from the Tar Heels’ forwards. She was hit in the head, pushed to the floor and knocked around. But this time, Cunane fought through it. She wouldn’t allow anything or anyone to stop her. In a dominant performance that saw her tally 22 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks – and make a career-best 14 free throws – Cunane led the now-ranked No. 7 Wolfpack to a redemption win over the Tar Heels, capturing a 76-68 victory.
“I think the last game, I really faded away and didn’t go through contact. So, I really tried to do that tonight,” Cunane said. “I think I just slowed down. The first game, I was going everywhere and turning the ball over a lot. My coaches and teammates talked to me and said, ‘Elissa, calm down. You know who you are. Just take the ball to the basket.’”
She then added with a grin: “I would say towards the end, yea, I got a little beat up.”
Cunane was aided by the stellar play of several of her teammates. The other who shined the brightest was Aislinn Konig, the point guard who controlled the game and guided the Wolfpack to its fifth straight win. The senior scored 16 points, including 11 in the second half. A pair of three-pointers from Konig helped put the game on ice in the fourth quarter. The 5-foot-10 Canadian also notched four assists, two rebounds, two blocks and two steals.
“Rebounding obviously was a big part of this game,” N.C. State head coach Wes Moore said. “Elissa in-particular, to have 17 rebounds is amazing. She was a warrior out there, getting that done… When we need a big shot, Ace is somebody we turn to a lot of the time. She hit four big three’s for us.”
There seemed to be an early effort to get the ball to Cunane down low. Of N.C. State’s first eight possessions, four of them saw Cunane get a touch in the post. This helped her get rolling early, but it also sent a message to the Tar Heels. Simply put, N.C. State wasn’t intimidated by UNC’s fierce forwards, Janelle Bailey and Malu Tshitenge.
Bailey and Tshitenge quickly figured out that they were not only playing against a fearless Wolfpack team, but that they had to be weary of an officiating crew armed with a quick whistle. Bailey picked up her first foul just 62 seconds into the game. By halftime, both forwards had three fouls each. Both would wind up fouling out before the final whistle.
When opposing players foul out at Reynolds, Wolfpack fans will generally chant, “left, right, left, right, left, right… SIT DOWN!” as they approach their seat on the bench. But in a hilarious moment of showmanship, both Bailey and Tshitenge didn’t immediately sit down. They stood in front of their seats on the bench for several moments, spoiling the Wolfpack’s fun and embracing the rivalry.
When asked if the game would’ve been different if Bailey didn’t get in foul trouble in the first half, UNC head coach Courtney Banghart simply said, “You bet.”
Banghart didn’t directly criticize the officiating, but eluded to her dissatisfaction with how the game was refereed.
“I got a bunch of fighters, and I should probably stop there,” Banghart said. “I thought Janelle played through adversity like a grown woman. I thought Malu played through adversity like a grown woman. It’s hard, because you can’t really tell them what they’re doing wrong, because I don’t know.”
Bailey and Tshitenge didn’t stuff the stat sheet in UNC and N.C. State’s first meeting – combining for 16 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks – but when a rebound was to be had, the duo boxed out Cunane and the rest of the Wolfpack, and their presence at the rim forced N.C. State to alter their shots.
This time around, with at least one of them on the bench for prolonged stretches at a time, N.C. State handily won the rebounding battle, 46-28. The Wolfpack scored 28 points in the paint and 17 points off second-chances. Bailey and Tshitenge combined for 12 points and 12 rebounds in this meeting.
Still, the Tar Heels fought to the bitter end. With eight minutes to play, they trailed by just four points.
And then Konig sank those pair of shots from behind the arc. She’s now second all-time in three-pointers made in N.C. State history.
Leading UNC was Shayla Bennett and Taylor Koenen. Bennett poured in 24 points and eight assists, while the veteran Koenen had 21 points, four rebounds and three assists. And when Bailey and Tshitenge were on the bench, is was often Koenen who had the colossal task of guarding Cunane.
“What was going to happen again? That we were going to fight until the end? That’s what we do. That’s what we’ve done all year,” Banghart said of her Tar Heels. “It’s a 40-minute game. And what you’re going to see with the guys in blue is, we’re going to give you everything we’ve got for the whole 40 minutes… That the team I’ve got. A group of fighters.”
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Perhaps the best women’s basketball atmosphere in the ACC
Around N.C. State’s campus Sunday night, it became clear that this game was a bona-fide must-see event. There were lines of cars trying to cram into the parking garage near Reynolds Coliseum, and outside the doors of the sold-out contest, there were ticket scalpers; mostly folks looking to buy, but one or two selling too, trying to capitalize off the can’t-miss match-up.
Inside the 70-year-old arena, there wasn’t an empty seat to be found. Most of the stands were filled with Wolfpack fans in red. Media covering the game filled the tables along the baselines. When the cheerleaders ran on and off the court, they had to be sure not trip over the many photographers.
“You draw 5,000 at our place, 5,000 at this place, for a women’s basketball game. This is basketball country,” Banghart said. “I’m just really humbled to be part of it. It’s very awesome.”
The place was packed. And the Wolfpack and the Tar Heels put on a performance worthy of any ticket price.
Reynolds rocked. The rowdy supporters roared.
There were times when you could only hear the person next to you if they screamed directly into your ear.
For N.C. State’s players, it’s the best atmosphere in college basketball. For Konig, it’s why she came to Raleigh.
“This is why you come to N.C. State. You come here for big games with amazing crowds and high stakes,” Konig said. “So, as a player and a competitor, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.”
Added Moore: “It’s just exciting. It’s a great atmosphere for our players to play in. I appreciate our fanbase and it’s a great home-court advantage. Reynolds is – the fans are right on top of you, and it really makes a difference. Hopefully we can sellout a few more.”
We need Round Three
The end of Sunday’s game was bittersweet. It was the latest chapter in a great rivalry between the two teams, but it’s the last time we’ll see them meet this season.
Unless, however, the two meet in either the ACC or NCAA tournament. Fans of women’s college basketball deserve a third round between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack. UNC won in Carmichael; N.C. State won at Reynolds – let’s see how they fair on a neutral court.
The Greensboro Coliseum seems like a suitable venue for a tiebreaker, and in the ACC tournament, a lot will be on the line.
In Banghart’s first season at the helm of UNC, the Tar Heels seem bound for a top-five seed in the ACC tournament. UNC has five conference wins, which is tied with Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest for the fourth-most.
But UNC has a pretty soft slate in the second half of their conference schedule. They won’t see any of the top three teams in Louisville, N.C. State or FSU. They have five games at home, and on the road they’ll face Duke, Boston College, Wake Forest and a depleted Notre Dame squad. Nabbing a seed ranked third to fifth in the conference tournament should be do-able.
The only team in front of N.C. State in the standings is Louisville, so their match-up on Feb. 13 will be crucial. N.C. State is 12-0 at home this season.
If the bracket breaks down to give us a third UNC vs. N.C. State match-up, fans of the game will be very lucky.
Players, coaches weigh-in on Kobe Bryant’s impact on the game
Every basketball game played Sunday had a weird and somber feeling to it. Hours before N.C. State and UNC tipped off, NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine people killed in a helicopter crash in California.
Banghart, Moore and N.C. State’s players talked about Bryant’s legacy, his impact on the game and his support for women’s basketball.
Banghart: “I’m not someone who has been really emotional about the loss of people I haven’t meant. But I got to say, when that came, I was really taken back. He’s not perfect, but he’s a hero to so many who play our game. And then on top of that, he’s taught us how to compete. He taught everybody that it’s okay to compete. He was incredibly focused, whether he was a writer, a filmmaker, a player, and he’s a parent. And as a parent myself, like, he cares about leaving a legacy of leaving the game better than he found it. And his love for women’s basketball was important to us. What happened today (the game) was fun; it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I can wake up tomorrow morning. He didn’t get to do that… He made basketball – in-part, with Jordan, our guy – the sport that we’re obsessed with in this country.”
Konig: “He’s always been a huge supporter of women’s basketball and women’s sports in general. I think that stems from the wonderful relationship he has with his daughters. To lose somebody who is such an inspiration on the basketball floor but also so supportive to what we’re doing, is a big blow to women’s basketball and the basketball community as a whole.”
Moore: “He was so involved in women’s basketball, but also, just as a player and a person, he was a competitor. We talk to our players all the time about competing and trying to be the absolute best you can be on the court and off. He did unbelievable things on the court, and I had no doubt he was going to do unbelievable things off the court. And that’s the shame, is we’ll never see that. He left a great legacy and we can all learn from his drive and how hard he worked for everything he got.”
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