If Wolfpack hopes to advance, a lot will ride on top reserve Kayla Jones

NC State head coach Wes Moore talks about the road win over UNC

NC State avenges their first loss of the season, defeating rival UNC 74-69 in Chapel Hill Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. NC State guard Kiara Leslie is at left and Kayla Jones at right.
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NC State avenges their first loss of the season, defeating rival UNC 74-69 in Chapel Hill Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. NC State guard Kiara Leslie is at left and Kayla Jones at right.

N.C. State head coach Wes Moore can tell when it’s going to be a good night in the Moore home.

Whenever Wolfpack reserve Kayla Jones has a good performance that makes Moore’s wife, Linda, happy: Jones and Linda Moore are both from Jamesville.

If good nights at the Moore home are to continue, the Wolfpack will need contributions from Jones, who plays a pivotal role off the bench for No. 3 N.C. State (27-5), who will host No. 6 seed Kentucky (25-7) at 7 p.m. on Monday.

Jones, a sophomore, played 20 minutes off the bench during the Wolfpack’s 63-51 win over Maine on Saturday. Season-ending injuries have depleted the N.C. State roster, with four players done for the year. Against the Black Bears, Jones was the only reserve used until Moore emptied the bench with three players who combined for four minutes in the 12-point win.

“If you look there’s a lot of teams, men’s teams, that play six people,” Moore said. “I’m talking good ones. I know Duke has done that a lot in the past. You just have to go with what you have depth-wise.”

That depth usually begins and ends with Jones, who has averaged 17.8 minutes off the bench in 32 games this season, along with 4.8 points per game. Jones put together her best stretch of the season from Feb. 21 - 28, averaging 14.3 points in consecutive games against Wake Forest, North Carolina and Louisville. She found her stroke from behind the line in the games at UNC and Louisville, shooting a combined 5-6 from three.

Not bad for a player who spent most of her freshman year trying to adjust to the ACC level after a dominating prep career at Riverside High, a 1A school in Martin County. Jones averaged 24 points per game and 11.9 rebounds per game for the Knights, leading them to a NCHSAA 1A state championship game.

She was an unstoppable force right from her freshman season at Riverside, but often times it’s uncertain if players from the NCHSAA’s smallest division can make the jump to Division I, especially the ACC level of play. Even Jones wasn’t so sure.

“The pace of the game sped up,” Jones said. “That was an adjustment, every possession was real critical. Just knowing everyone on the court was going just as hard as I was in high school was very different.”

Jones spent her entire freshman year adjusting, watching the upperclassmen on the floor and working in the summer to play a role this season. She only played in 15 games last year, and was called into action this year once the injuries piled up.

She has gotten confidence in her shot, thanks to N.C. State’s leading scorer, Kiara Leslie, being her biggest supporter and the person who forces her to get in the gym for extra work before practice.

“I saw it in KJ early on,” Leslie said. “In practice I would see her attacking more, more confident in her shot. She just needed to work on being consistent.”

Thanks to Linda’s connections to Jamesville, a town of 491, Moore had been hearing about Jones since she was young. That happens a lot in coaching - whispers of a future star that make their way to a coaches’ ear - but they don’t always pan out, especially coming from smaller towns.

“Sometimes a kid who is really good in high school, her game doesn’t translate to this level,” Moore said. “That is kind of rare, and I think it’s been a tough transition, but she’s feeling more comfortable now. Obviously she’s had some games where she’s stepped up for us and that’s what we have to have happen this weekend if we are going to be successful.”

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