Wolfpack cages Black Bears to set up second-round game versus Kentucky in NCAA tournament

N.C. State used a big run before the half to get some breathing room from Maine as the Wolfpack advanced to the second round of the NCAA women’s tournament with a 63-51 win over the Black Bears.

It was a rematch of a Dec. 15 meeting where N.C. State won by 38. Wolfpack head coach Wes Moore knew Maine, which came into the game on a 14-game winning streak, was a different team, but N.C. State had little trouble with the Black Bears (25-8) after the first quarter.

The No. 3-seeded Wolfpack (27-5) will host No. 6-seeded Kentucky on Monday. The Wildcats defeated Princeton 82-77 in the first game at Reynolds Coliseum.

Kiara Leslie led N.C. State with 20 points. Elissa Cunane added 16 and Kai Crutchfield chipped in 14 for the Wolfpack.

Leslie matched her two-game point total from the ACC tournament and Cunane, who added nine rebounds, was a tough match up for the Black Bears in her first-career NCAA tournament game.

“That’s one of the things we focused on before the game was just pounded it inside,” Cunane said. “My teammates just did a good job of getting me the ball, (telling) to just go up and shoot the ball.”

N.C. State had a 32-6 advantage when it came to points in the paint. It was the kind of edge the Wolfpack, which hadn’t played a game since March 8, needed after a slow start.

“We hadn’t played in two weeks and at times offensively that showed,” Moore said. “I thought we made a nice run in the second quarter.”

North Carolina State’s Kiara Leslie (11) reacts following a 3-point basket against Maine during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA women’s college basketball tournament in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, March 23, 2019. Gerry Broome AP

N.C. State managed to take a 17-point lead into the locker room at halftime thanks to an 11-0 run, seven of those points coming from sophomore guard Kai Crutchfield.

Crutchfield didn’t start a game until Jan. 6, and has scored in double figures in seven games now.

“Really happy for her,” Moore said. “She’s another one that’s been thrown in the fire this year and she continues to grow. She’s had some big games for us and it was great to see her continue to do that today. In the first half we needed it and that gave us a big lift heading into halftime.”

The Millbrook grad hit a 3-pointer while being fouled and added the free throw for a rare four-point play to make it 36-22 and knocked down a 3 to end the half, giving her 10 points in the opening 20 minutes. Leslie had 13 at the break, despite picking up her second foul and having to sit for two minutes.

Crutchfield, who scored just two points the first time the two teams met, caught fire in the final 40 seconds of the second quarter. N.C. State led by 10 when Jones rebounded a missed three by Konig. Crutchfield caught the ball in the corner in front of the Maine bench and fired up a triple, drawing a foul in the process. Her free throw made it 36-22. On the final possession of the half, Crutchfield, a 36 percent shooter from three-point range, beat the buzzer with a triple, as the Wolfpack led by 17 at the half.

N.C. State led by 33 at the half the first time the two teams met in December. That game featured a different-looking Wolfpack team, as Moore has had to replace several regulars out for the season with injuries.

“Congrats to N.C. State,” Black Bears coach Amy Vachon said. “I hope they go far in this tournament. They are a good team and coach Moore is a class act.”

Kentucky will be the second SEC match up for the Wolfpack this season. N.C. State defeated Vanderbilt, 74-54, on Nov. 15 in Raleigh.

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.