RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Kayla Jones and North Carolina State are exactly where they expected to be entering the women’s NCAA Tournament. The goal now is riding the Wolfpack’s second straight No. 1 seed to the program’s deepest postseason push in decades.
“I feel like we’re not done,” said Jones, a fifth-year forward. “We have to continue to work hard. No team is going to take us lightly. We have to throw the first punch every game.”
N.C. State (29-3) hosts 16th-seeded Longwood on Saturday in the Bridgeport Region, while No. 8 seed Washington State and No. 9 seed Kansas State also play in Raleigh.
So far, Wes Moore’s squad has checked all the boxes. The Wolfpack swept the Atlantic Coast Conference’s regular-season and tournament championships — the latter marking a third straight title – and spent all season in the top 5 of the AP Top 25 women’s poll.
Jones said in the preseason that the goal had to be bigger than just winning another ACC title and adding she was “tired of going to the Sweet 16.” Now’s the time to make good on that, with the Wolfpack having reached the Final Four only in 1998 under late Hall of Famer Kay Yow.
For the first time amid the Wolfpack’s current three-year ACC reign, they’ll host their first- and second- round games at home. They were set to host in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the tournament, while last year’s tournament was in the Texas bubble.
“I can say I’m happy to not be in the bubble. That sucked,” Jones said. “We love Wolfpack nation. I wanted to tweet out and say, ‘Can you please follow us everywhere we go?’ Their support and energy is crazy. It pushes us, for sure.”
Jones’ health is key for the Wolfpack. The 6-foot-1 forward went down with a torn patella tendon in last year’s first-round game, and N.C. State fell without her in the Sweet 16.
Moore has been conservative with Jones’ usage, as she’s sixth on the team in playing time with 20.4 minutes per game. Still, Jones has been effective as a scorer, rebounder and outside shooter. She has the fourth-best offensive rating nationally with a 132.1 mark, and she ranks 25th by scoring 1.25 points per play, according to HerHoopStats.
“She’s kind of a glue player. She makes everybody around her better. She brings energy,” Moore said. “She brings a lot to the table. And, a lot of things — if you don’t watch film or whatever — you might not notice.”
N.C. State’s first hurdle will be against the Lancers (22-11), which beat Mount St. Mary’s in the First Four. The Wolfpack will have to account for Lancers’ forward Akila Smith, who racked up 32 points and 13 boards Thursday.
N.C. State star Elissa Cunane appears to be ready for the NCAAs.
The 6-foot-5 senior tweaked her left ankle in the ACC Tournament final against Miami nearly two weeks ago. Moore says Cunane “didn’t really do a whole lot” of practicing until this week, but said she’s “moving pretty well” now.
Cunane was a full participant in Friday’s practice, but wore an ankle wrap. She was named an Associated Press second-team All-American earlier this week, marking the third straight year she had made the second or third team.
The other matchup marks only the third time Washington State (19-10) has made the tournament.
Under the direction of fourth-year coach Kamie Ethridge – who won a NCAA championship as a player with Texas in 1986 – the Cougars are searching for their first tournament win. To capture it, they must slow 6-6 center Ayoka Lee, a second-team AP All-American for Kansas State (19-12).
“I think they could really throw anything at us, but I don’t think it would be anything that we haven’t seen before or anything that we can’t make an adjustment to,” Lee said.
Lee averages 22.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.1 blocks this year. She is seventh in the nation in scoring, and set a Division I women’s record with 61 points in a win over Oklahoma in January.
“We haven’t seen anyone like (Lee), and certainly haven’t seen anyone that scored 61 on someone,” Ethridge said. “We’re not real big, so it’s a concern. We have to figure out ways to make life hard for her.”
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