RALEIGH – The hardwood basketball court inside the historic Reynolds Coliseum is named after Kay Yow, the late and great former N.C. State head coach who is a Hall of Famer and led the Wolfpack to five ACC titles.
But on Thursday night, the areas directly under both baskets belonged to Kylee Shook.
The fierce Louisville forward – who is perhaps falsely listed as being only 6-foot-4 – stalked and patrolled the paint all night. She tormented Elissa Cunane, an ACC Player of the Year candidate who had probably the worst shooting night of her career, according to the numbers. Cunane was averaging more than 17 points per-game and making 57 percent of all of her shots. But on Thursday against Shook, she scored 10 points on 1-of-12 shooting and never made a shot from inside the three-point arc.
When it became clear that the referees were going to allow physical play, Shook used her strength, force, toughness and smarts to stop Cunane. Whenever the Wolfpack sophomore put up a shot, at least one of Shook’s hands was there.
“Kylee’s been great all year,” Louisville senior Jazmine Jones said. “She just played unbelievable tonight. She did what she was supposed to do. She played tough tonight.”
And so, with Shook frustrating Cunane, with Dana Evans hounding Aislinn Konig, and with Jones carrying the scoring load, No. 9 Louisville walked into a packed-out and loud Reynolds Coliseum on Thursday and left with a 66-59 victory.
For Louisville, the win ends a two-game skid, which caused them to drop from fourth to ninth in the AP Top 25 Poll this week. The victory also meant that the Cardinals avoided losing three straight games for the first time since the 2011-12 season. Because of Louisville’s tenacious defense, that streak can last a bit longer.
Another streak that lives on is N.C. State’s lack of luck against Louisville. The Wolfpack have not beaten the Cardinals since 2017. On Thursday, Louisville handed N.C. State its first home loss of the season, and just its seventh defeat in Reynolds Coliseum since the arena reopened in 2016 after renovations.
“You have to give Louisville a lot of credit. They came out ready to play and took it to us and we dug a hole. We weren’t in attacking mode,” N.C. State head coach Wes Moore said. “We didn’t do a really good job defending and they did. They made it really tough inside all night on the block and tried to make us rush some shots on the perimeter.”
Shook entered Thursday night’s game averaging 2.6 blocks per-game, good enough for the lead among all ACC players. It seemed obvious that if Louisville was going to win, Shook would have to play well on the defensive end of the floor and at least stifle Cunane a bit.
Earlier this week though, the veteran Louisville players gathered and talked about not losing three games in a row. They discussed what they needed to fix and committed to going all out in their preparation for the game.
Clearly, a fire was lit inside of Shook. She didn’t just accept the challenge of guarding Cunane. She didn’t just slow her down. No, Shook owned the paint and basically cut off an essential part of N.C. State’s offense by eliminating Cunane’s ability to score at the rim.
“When (Cunane) did get it, they did a nice job of really bellying-up on her and making it tough for her to move. She’s got to probably do a better job of taking an extra dribble, being more explosive and creating space,” Moore said. “When you’re 6-foot-5, a lot of times you can get away with not doing that, but Shook matches her up size-wise and they did a good job of making it tough on her.”
Shook, who is Louisville’s all-time leader in blocks, had perhaps her best game of the season. She posted a season-high in blocked shots with seven swats, and posted her first double-double of ACC play with 10 points and 10 rebounds. The Colorado Springs native also had two steals and an assist in 38 minutes of play.
“Kylee, defensively, was phenomenal for us,” Walz said. “She followed the scouting report. We told her exactly what (Cunane) loves to do, which shoulder she likes to turn over. You got to make her take contested shots, make her shoot over you. Right now, I had (Cunane) as Player of the Year in our league, and I’d still put her up there… She draws so much attention. And then I thought we did a really nice job of defending the three-point line for the most part, because that’s where N.C. State can get you. You go in there to help on Cunane and they kick out and knock down three’s.”
While Shook bruised up Cunane, Dana Evans shadowed Aislinn Konig, N.C. State’s primary ball-handler. Evans harassed Konig all night long. Louisville started pressing near the end of the first quarter and tried everything they could to deny Konig possession of the ball.
The Cardinals tried to tip every pass and block every shot. In the end, Louisville only forced N.C. State into eight turnovers, but Konig had three of them and she also shot just 2-of-9 from the floor and 0-of-6 from three-point range. Thursday was the first time since November that Konig had been held scoreless from behind the arc.
As a whole, N.C. State shot just 5-of-20 from three-point land.
“Dana has done a really good job on Ace throughout her career,” Walz said. “Dana’s ability to pick the ball up 94 feet – it’s not like she had a bunch of steals, but it makes Ace work and you wear her down.”
When the NCAA women’s basketball committee looks at Louisville’s resume next month, they might put an asterisk next to their two losses last week against Florida State and Syracuse. That’s because Louisville was without starter Elizabeth Balogun, who was away playing with the Nigerian national team in Olympic Qualifying.
But Balogun returned Thursday, tallying nine points, seven rebounds and a block in 23 minutes of play. She helped spread the floor out for Louisville, and made it so there was another player on the floor that N.C. State had to pay attention to – something the Seminoles and Orange didn’t have to worry about.
Having Balogun back is a big boost and difference-maker for the Cardinals. Walz made it clear Thursday night that he will always defend and support his players, even if that means risking two ACC losses so they can go play in the Olympics. Some things are simply just more important than college basketball.
“Everybody, my own fanbase, has criticized me and given me grief for allowing Elizabeth Balogun to go play with the Nigerian national team. As I tell my fanbase, sometimes we need to get out of our way as fans, and understand what’s best for these young women,” Walz said. “It’s what you dream of doing. Did it cost us? Yea it did. But at the end of the day, it’s ACC basketball games. Which they’re important, I understand, but when you get a grasp on it that she’s going to walk in opening ceremonies of the 2020 Olympics, you just can’t put a price tag on that. We’re in complete support of her.”
Balogun arrived back in Louisville late Monday night on a flight back from Serbia.
“Just (Balogun’s) presence on the floor spreads things out. You got to defend her. She rebounded the ball tonight. And she makes the one three, but it sure was a big one,” Walz said. “I was really proud and excited to have her back.
“Defense has not been our problem the past three games. We just couldn’t put the ball in the basket. And Elizabeth kind of opened things up to make things a little bit easier.”
Boyd shines in short spurts for Wolfpack
One of the few positives coming out of the game for N.C. State was the play of freshman Jada Boyd.
The 6-foot-5 native of Petersburg, Virginia entered the game near the end of the third quarter and went on a little run of her own to bring the Wolfpack within striking distance of the Louisville lead. Beginning with about two minutes remaining, Boyd received a pass in the low post and used her quick feet and a spin move to connect on a lay-up that drew applause from the crowd. Boyd scored again on the next trip down, connecting on a close shot while drawing contact. She hit the free throw too, and ended the period by grabbing a pair of defensive boards.
Boyd remained in the game to start the fourth quarter and grabbed two more rebounds before exiting the game, with N.C. State trailing by just five points.
In all, Boyd tallied 10 points, four rebounds and a steal in just 13 minutes of play. After the game, Moore admitted that he was impressed with her play and maybe should’ve went to her earlier, and perhaps used a smaller lineup that featured Boyd and Kayla Jones in the front court when it became evident that it was going to be a tough night for Cunane.
“I kind of kick myself. We might should’ve gone with a more smaller lineup, a little more athletic lineup, a little bit sooner,” Moore said. “I think (Boyd) was a little more motivated and focused. She’s got unbelievable potential. She’s going to be a great player… She’s so daggone athletic, you got to let her play. She did a great job. Like I said, probably should’ve got her out there more.”
In her recruiting process, Boyd ultimately chose to sign with N.C. State over Louisville. But that didn’t stop Walz from stating the obvious Thursday.
“I thought Jada Boyd played really well tonight too,” Walz said. “I thought she really went at us hard.”
N.C. State bobbled an opportunity to get its best win of the season and potentially secure a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. With the victory, Louisville played itself back into the conversation for a top seed.
Walz said he isn’t concerned with where the Cardinals end up seed-wise in March.
“We can get beat by anyone if we don’t come out focused and prepared to play,” Walz said. “We’ve gotten together more as a team. Instead of just counting on one player, it’s everybody. Which is why, I think we’re pretty good, because of our balance.”
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