NC State’s star freshman already has sophomore status in the eyes of her coach

Wes Moore didn’t want to keep reminding his seniors that their next game could easily be their last at N.C. State.

After the Wolfpack defeated Kentucky 72-57 to advance to the Sweet 16, Moore was joined in the postgame press conference by seniors D.D. Rogers and Kiara Leslie. Rogers was asked if she played with extra effort because she didn’t want her career to end.

After his players left the room Moore said he wanted to keep it light, insisting that reporters not ask about the impending end of their playing days for his seniors, who get one more guaranteed game against Iowa in Greensboro on Saturday.

The good news for Moore was the player sitting directly next to him doesn’t have to worry about wearing the N.C. State uniform for the last time anytime soon.

Sitting to Moore’s right was freshman center Elissa Cunane, even though at this point of the season it’s almost laughable to consider her a rookie anymore. Cunane has played in 33 games and was named to the ACC all-rookie and all-tournament teams. Since being thrust into the starting lineup over the past nine games, Cunane has become the No. 2 scoring option for the Wolfpack behind Leslie.

Maine’s Fanny Wadling defends against North Carolina State’s Elissa Cunane (33) during the second half of a first round women’s college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Raleigh, N.C., Saturday, March 23, 2019. Gerry Broome AP

In the second-round win over the Wildcats, Cunane finished with 13 points and a game-high 15 rebounds, her third double-double this season. As No. 3 N.C. State (28-5) heads to the Sweet 16 to take on the No. 2 Hawkeyes (28-6), Moore wasn’t ready to talk about the end for his seniors, but he did concede that Cunane has outplayed her freshman status.

“When you’ve played 33 games, I guess you could say she’s a sophomore. I like that, so let’s go with that,” Moore said. “She’s had a heck of a year.”

The four-time ACC rookie of the week spent little time adjusting once she arrived on campus. In the first seven games of the season, Cunane scored in double figures five times. She had two 23-point games before December and really took off once she was inserted in the starting five after Erika Cassell went down with a season-ending injury, including a career-high 28 against No. 5 Notre Dame. Cunane has the highest field goal percentage on the team (57 percent) and the head coaches of State’s first two NCAA Tournament opponents made sure to focus on No. 33 when going over the scouting report.

Before the Wolfpack took on Maine in the opening round, a rematch from a December showdown, Black Bears head coach Amy Vachon said the biggest difference from the first game was the emergence of Cunane.

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North Carolina State’s Elissa Cunane waves to fans after the team’s win over Florida State during an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference women’s tournament in Greensboro, N.C., Friday, March 8, 2019. H. Scott Hoffmann News & Record/AP

“They are looking to go into No. 33 a lot and I don’t blame them, she’s playing fantastic,” Vachon said a day before Cunane went for 16 points and nine rebounds during a 63-51 Wolfpack victory.

Cunane’s play obviously isn’t catching any opposing coaches by surprise. It’s also not a surprise to her high school coach, Kim Furlough, who talks to Cunane regularly. Cunane led Northern Guilford to three state championship games, winning two.

“I am not the least bit surprised that she is doing as well as she is,” Furlough said. “She works hard, she’s coachable, great teammate, has good basketball IQ. She has the whole package.”

Moore said he would like to see Cunane’s passing improve moving forward. The 6-foot-5 center saw a lot of double teams against the Wildcats and Moore expects a lot of different looks from the Hawkeyes on Saturday. Cunane never has had more than three assists in a game.

“They’re going to double her and try to make her give it up,” Moore said. “She’s got to slow down a little bit. Chin the ball, look over that inside shoulder, see the help.”

Whatever is thrown her way, Furlough feels like Cunane will be able to handle it. Towering over high school opponents, Cunane saw it all, according to her old coach: double teams, triple teams, everything, and she still excelled.

“Of course playing in the ACC is a whole different level when you’re playing against 6-4, 6-5 every night,” Furlough said. “But she has great footwork, she understands angles.”

Cunane has scored 10 or more points in seven straight games now, including two in a row (22 and 20) against Florida State and Louisville in the ACC Tournament, also played in Greensboro. A return to Greensboro is a homecoming for Cunane, and she’ll have plenty of support, including Furlough, who is glad Cunane got any Greensboro jitters out of the way earlier this month.

Moore isn’t too worried about it.

“I mean, again, Elissa, you saw how she handled the ACC tournament, making the all-tournament team over there and that was in her hometown,” Moore said. “So I don’t think she really gets fazed a whole lot.”

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