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The N.C. State women’s basketball team is ranked No. 4 in the nation and hosting No. 9 Louisville in a Thursday matchup that is arguably one of the biggest in program history.
There is plenty at stake. A victory would hand the Wolfpack a two-game lead over the Cardinals, which with the tiebreaker becomes a de facto three-game advantage. N.C. State (22-1, 11-1 ACC) also is in the mix for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
A win over Louisville would mark the third time this season that the Pack has beat a team ranked in the top 10.
Now in his seventh season as head coach at N.C. State, this is the situation that Wes Moore has been building to with his program, but don’t expect him to get lost in the moment.
“We can’t fully enjoy it yet,” Moore said. “We have an opportunity. This team has put us in a good position, but we are trying to get into a great position.”
The Cardinals were the top team in the conference for the majority of the season but consecutive losses have flipped the dynamic of Thursday’s showdown. Only a week ago, it seemed that the Wolfpack would potentially be playing Louisville for a chance to slide into a first-place tie.
Moore is 1-7 against Louisville as head coach of N.C. State.
The Cardinals have won consecutive ACC regular-season titles and reached the Final Four two seasons ago. Needless to say, Moore is not caught up in the hoopla of the game, nor is he letting Louisville’s recent slide cloud his opinion.
The Pack has struggled at times against pressing teams, and the Cardinals will show that early and often.
“I feel good about our team and about playing at home but we have had atendency to turn the ball over,” Moore said. “They are going to press us. [Louisville head coach] Jeff Walz is a really good coach. He is going to game plan for us. You go in with an idea of what you want to do, but then after a few minutes you may be switching gears completely.”
While the Pack has struggled against the Cards in Moore’s tenure, he sees where there is opportunity to narrow the gap.
“Last year in the conference tournament [a 78-68 Louisville win over N.C.State] we gave up 28 points off of turnovers, 12 points off of offensive rebounds. That’s 40 points of their 78 that we had a chance to control. We have got to be able to control that Thursday night if we are going to have a chance.”
Expect things to get crazy in Reynolds Coliseum as the Old Barn hosts a matchup of the two best teams in the ACC.
“[It is] just a great atmosphere in Reynolds,” Moore said. “It’s an unbelievable home court advantage and it is because of our fans.”
PACK SHOWS ITS POTENTIAL
When N.C. State opens up its fast- break offense, creates turnovers, and converts its 3-point attempts life is so much easier.
It seems simple but for the Wolfpack it has not been. On Tuesday, it was.
N.C. State’s five-point win at Syracuse had many of the characteristics that were missing from the season, particularly in
conference play. The Pack used turnovers to great effect, scoring 23 points of Orange miscues, and converted another 21 via the fast break.
Perhaps most importantly, N.C. State head coach Kevin Keatts watched in delight as his team made 11 of 25 attempts from 3-point range. The Wolfpack have been among the lower third in the nation in 3-point percentage for most of the season.
“Well, we knew we had to make threes,” Keatts said of facing Syracuse’s vaunted zone defense. “I thought coming in eight or nine would do it, but certainly I’ll take 11. I thought we did a good job of moving it around, and found gaps. They put you in a tough spot because they only give you certain shots and you have to make those certain shots.”
When watching his team develop, Keatts has often lamented the fact that he could not get what he wanted offensively from a group that has been banged up for the entire season. N.C. State provided a glimpse into what it could be and did so in an important game.
“That’s what I’m looking for,” Keatts told the Wolfpack radio crew following the win. “I knew in order to have success you have to get out in transition against these guys.”
The Pack is now 16-8 overall, 7-6 in the ACC. They currently are fifth in the league and hold tiebreaker advantages over the schools in fourth, sixth, and seventh (tied) places -— with a Sunday matchup against the ninth place Boston College Eagles looming.
Keatts’ team remarkably has a legitimate chance at finishing in the top four of the ACC and receiving a double bye in the conference tournament, and can do it despite holding a 1-4 record against the schools in 10th through 12th place in the league as well as a 10-point home loss to last place North Carolina.
N.C. State still controls its own destiny.
“My message to these guys in the last couple of weeks was to stay together no matter what adversity we have,” Keatts said. “You talk about family, there’s not a family in America that doesn’t go through something and argue about something, but at the end of the day, you’re playing for the same team, which is N.C. State.”
AVENT, WOLFPACK PREPARE FOR 2020
While there is no Will Wilson or Evan Edwards for him to lean on in 2020, N.C. State head coach Elliott Avent sees something in his current squad.
“Right now going into the season I really like the attitude of this team,” Avent said as he readies for his 24th season in charge of the Wolfpack. “I like the way they get along, and I am talking about throughout the team.
Some teams have cliques, especially within their classes.”
Nothing has surprised Avent at this point. While it is still chilly outdoors, he sees a team that is ready to get going on Friday when James Madison travels to Raleigh for a season opening three-game set.
“This time of year the players are ready to play,” Avent said. “It is like going through Christmas as a kid, you never thought it would get here but as a parent you wish it was down the road. These guys want to play but I just want to keep practicing. I am excited too though, as a player or coach the games are what you live for.”
N.C. State will feature some new players in its quest to replace Wilson and Edwards but most of the remainder of the lineup remains intact.
Patrick Bailey has reached several preseason All-American nods in the past few weeks and the Pack also has a stalwart on the mound in lefty Kent Klyman, who recently was named to the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association’s (NCBWA) 2020 Stopper of the Year Preseason Watch List.
“Obviously, you lose two weapons like Will Wilson and Evan Edwards, you don’t trade two players like those and expect to not have some concerns,” Avent said. “I like this ballclub, but we are going to have to score some runs.
“Pitching is the name of this game so are you ever going to pitch enough? There are so many programs out there in the country that dodge the draft and go to college. They give [schools] an upper edge. Pitching is always a start but the game hasn’t changed in 100 years.”
The Wolfpack has been picked to finish third in ACC’s Atlantic Division. The conference includes national champion contender Louisville, while N.C. State has a Coastal crossover with the annual three-game set against North Carolina.
It won’t be easy for the Pack in 2020, but Avent is embracing the process.
“If you have truly prepared the way you should prepare everyday, then it really is something you live for because you want the games,” Avent said. “Who would play this if all you could do is practice? You live for the games, just make sure you are ready to play them and it will be fine.”
Rob McLamb of Inside Pack Sports has covered N.C. State athletics and recruiting since 2012. You can follow him on Twitter @RobMcLamb.