Winning championships isn’t easy, but N.C. State sure made it look that way.
Playing in its third straight ACC tournament title game, the Wolfpack played most of the second half without its best player. All N.C. State did was hold Miami to three field goals in the third quarter and cruise to a third ACC Tournament title with a 60-47 win over the Hurricanes.
“We have a couple of kids who have been here five years,” head coach Wes Moore said. “Just amazing what they’ve done, the legacy they’ve built. To win three in a row is really hard. This league is strong right now.”
The Wolfpack has won nine straight games in Greensboro. The ninth win came with Elissa Cunane spending a good deal of the third quarter on the bench or in the locker room after rolling her ankle at the 6:40 mark of the period.
“I mean, when Elissa went down, obviously you get scared,” guard Raina Perez said. “If anyone on the team goes down, you kind of get scared. But she got back up and started walking off a little bit, so we all figured she was fine. We were hoping she was fine at least. We were right, she is.”
Cunane, who finished with 17 points, returned early in the fourth. By the time she entered, N.C. State was up 18.
They got there because Cunane’s understudy, junior Camille Hobby scored four points during a 9-0 run to close the third.
“Camille’s had some big games over here in Greensboro,” Moore said. “Obviously, Elissa has been a program changer, but Camille’s been loyal and hard-working. That’s why when we get a chance to get her in, I have a lot of confidence knowing that she’s going to bring some good things to the floor.”
They got there before Diamond Johnson, who was 2-of-15 from three in her first two games, hit consecutive 3s to bridge the third and fourth quarters.
Her second 3, the first basket of the fourth, made it a 21-point Pack advantage. N.C. State missed its next five shots, but locked down the Canes on the other end.
Johnson, the ACC Sixth Person of The Year, had nine points in the second half and the first five of the fourth. She finished with 11, her best game of the tournament.
“I think the whole (season) has been tough (for Johnson),” Moore said about the Rutgers transfer. “She was obviously All-Big Ten, she won a lot of accolades and now you come to a team that had a lot of success the last couple of years. It’s kind of hard to find your niche.”
Miami’s Kelsey Marshall tried to keep the Canes in it. Marshall scored 11 points in the fourth, but it wasn’t enough to knock off the champs.
N.C. State had too much firepower, winning despite shooting 2-of-10 from the floor in the fourth quarter.
“I think just knowing that they weren’t doubling down in the post as much because Elissa wasn’t there,” Perez said. “So it kind of just opened up the whole entire floor. I think with Elissa out, we kind of just looked for our shots more, as well, so that was it.”
Perez (12 points), who had been in a bit of a slump this tournament, hit a 3 at the horn to end the first half. That pushed N.C. State’s lead to nine, which felt like twice that. The 3 by Perez finally got the crowd into the game. It capped off a 10-0 run the Pack used to close out the first half, giving N.C. State its largest lead to that point.
Cunane was named the tournament MVP for the second straight season. In 11 ACC Tournament games, she’s scored double figures in every one of them, averaging 19 points per game for her career. Cunane cemented her legacy in tournament play.
“It’s the reason why I came to NC State, why I wanted to play for Coach Moore, because I saw a potential in this program, and to be able to take it to new heights and do it with everyone like the seniors that stayed, everyone that’s come in, it’s a program win,” Cunane said. “It goes beyond the team, like athletic trainers, nutritionists, all that. To be able to come in and NC State as a whole, as a program, we all won this championship, and for three years it’s been pretty amazing. I think it speaks highly of who we have in charge at coach and then just who we have as part of the program in general.”
Jada Boyd and Jakia Brown-Turner were also named to the All-Tournament team.
N.C. State will wait a week until Selection Sunday, when it will find out where it’s headed for the NCAA Tournament.