RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Elissa Cunane has developed into a go-to inside presence for No. 4 North Carolina State, and she is a major reason the program is sitting atop the Atlantic Coast Conference with its highest ranking in two decades.
The 6-foot-5 sophomore complements one of the nation’s best 3-point shooting attacks. That mix has the Wolfpack pursuing the program’s first ACC regular-season or tournament title since the early 1990s, along with a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
“I think we’re doing amazing right now, but I think there’s a lot more to accomplish,” Cunane said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I think we can look back and see where we won this game and won this game, but there is so much ahead of us. … We’re not going to focus on NCAAs right now when we have a game on Thursday, or the ACC Tournament when we have game on Thursday and one on Sunday.”
The stakes are going up for the Wolfpack (22-1, 11-1 ACC), who jumped three spots in Monday’s AP Top 25 for the program’s highest ranking since hitting No. 3 in January 2000 under late Hall of Famer Kay Yow. N.C. State sits a game ahead of No. 9 Louisville (21-3, 10-2) in the league standings entering Thursday’s matchup in Raleigh, and a win would be a huge step toward winning the regular-season race for the first time since the 1989-90 season.
N.C State hasn’t won the ACC Tournament since 1991.
“I have mentioned to them all year we want to do some special things, and we can if we fix A, B and C,” seventh-year coach Wes Moore said. “We can do those things. I think they’re pretty smart kids. They know.”
They also know that getting the ball to Cunane is a good way to keep rolling.
Moore runs a “four-out, one-in” offense that fans players out on the perimeter, creating space for Cunane to work inside yet also giving kick-out options against double teams.
“You better have a pretty good one (inside) if you’re running that system,” Moore said.
Cunane ranks in the top five in the ACC in scoring (fifth at 17.0), rebounding (first at 10.5), shooting percentage (second at 57.7), free-throw percentage (fifth at 79.9) and double-doubles (first with 12). She has the ability to post up a defender deep in the paint for a back-to-the-basket move or to draw a whistle — she had accounted for more than a third of the team’s drawn fouls this year — but she can also step outside (10 of 24 from 3-point range) and even lead the break.
Surrounding Cunane are shooters who have the Wolfpack ranked 10th nationally with nine made 3s per game and 18th in 3-point accuracy at 36.9%), led by senior Aislinn Konig (44% from 3 in ACC play).
“Coach Moore always tells me that 1-on-1, nobody should be able to guard me in the post,” Cunane said. “So if I get the ball and there’s no double team, then take it all the way. And I think it helps having great shooters around the perimeter. You have to guard them … so it opens up the lane for me.”
The Wolfpack’s lone loss offered a reminder of what happens if Cunane doesn’t get touches.
Playing at rival North Carolina on Jan. 9, the Wolfpack squandered a double-digit second-half lead amid a series of missed 3-pointers. Cunane, meanwhile, got only one shot in the second and third quarters and went more than 36 minutes between baskets for a season-low eight points.
“It’s one thing if she catches the ball low on the paint, you’ve got problems,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “That’s the one thing that I’ve taken away from watching a lot of film. You’ve got to try to mix things up. You can’t just play one way. If she gets comfortable, then you’ve got yourself a problem.”
AP Sports Writer Gary B. Graves in Louisville, Kentucky contributed to this report.
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