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Loose and ready to roll: NC State keeping it light as it prepares for Iowa

North Carolina State’s Aislinn Konig, facing, hugs DD Rogers, left, during the first half of a second round women’s college basketball game against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
North Carolina State’s Aislinn Konig, facing, hugs DD Rogers, left, during the first half of a second round women’s college basketball game against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, March 25, 2019. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome) AP

Just moments before N.C. State held its first practice at the Greensboro Coliseum, DD Rogers and Aislinn Konig sat in the corner of the Wolfpack locker room.

Seated next to Konig was Kai Crutchfield and the three players looked like they were in the back of a classroom, laughing at an inside joke that only the three of them found amusing or even knew about.

You would never believe that in less than 24 hours N.C. State (28-5) would be taking on Iowa (28-6) in the Sweet 16. It’s the second straight season the Wolfpack have advanced to a regional semifinal in the NCAA women’s tournament, but just because they’ve been here before doesn’t make the situation any less tense.

Two wins this weekend and N.C. State is in the Final Four. Standing in its way are the Hawkeyes, with a pair of powerhouse programs -- Baylor and South Carolina -- waiting on the other side of the bracket.

The Wolfpack will play at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, the game broadcast on ESPN for the entire country to see. Plenty of reasons to be uptight, right? Quite the opposite for the Pack.

“Right now we’re feeling pretty good,” N.C. State coach Wes Moore said. “I want to keep it light, just enjoy it and play like we played all year and treat it like any other game.”

Moore said this during his press conference, around the corner from the Wolfpack locker room, where his players waited to take the floor and took times between laughs to discuss how, even through adversity, they’ve managed to smile for the entire ride.

Picking one person who leads the way in the silliness depends on the day of the week, Rogers said. Friday morning it looked like Rogers, Konig and Crutchfield were in a world of their own. They would later be joined in the high jinks by freshman Elissa Cunane, who, as it turns out, is the cause for laughter on the court. For the time being, what you see — the giggles, light mood — is what you get with the Wolfpack.

“Yeah, I would definitely say that we are relaxed,” Rogers said, taking a brief moment to gather herself. “Obviously we’re on edge about the competition and everything, but I mean when we’re off the court we try to enjoy ourselves as best we can.”

The competition includes Iowa center Megan Gustafson, the ESPNW national player of the year, who averages 28.0 points and 13.5 rebounds per game. She’ll present enough problems for the Wolfpack on Saturday that it won’t be a laughing matter. Not that N.C. State’s players take themselves so seriously they won’t crack a smile on the court occasionally.

“I feel like we find ourselves on the court laughing about something,” Rogers confessed. “It might not be a situation where we should be, but I feel like it keeps us lose and into the game, and we are really enjoying ourselves.”

The main culprit for the on-court laughs is the 6-foot-5 Cunane.

“I feel like I find myself laughing with Elissa on the court quite a bit and it’s basketball related stuff and you’re like ‘Why did that just happen?’” Rogers said, between more laughs.

If Konig decides to get fancy and try a behind-the-back pass, she’ll hear about it from Moore. If her teammates find it funny, Moore will get on them about it in a huddle, screaming ‘It’s not funny! Stop laughing!’”

That only makes it worse.

“He says that to me all the time,” Konig confessed. ““It’s kind of like that situation in class and a teacher is like, “It’s not funny, stop laughing.’ It kind of makes us laugh some more.”

But a loose Wolfpack means a good Wolfpack.

N.C. State has won six of their last eight games, including two NCAA tournament wins at home by an average of 13.5 points. When injuries ripped through the roster, the team still laughed, even if just to keep from crying. In fact, it was the injured players who kept keep the mood when they couldn’t play anymore.

“They didn’t change that much,” Rogers said. “I know those are big injuries and for some people it would change them a lot. But I feel like Armani (Hawkins) and Grace (Hunter), they are big goof balls and nothing changed about them, and Erika (Cassell) still jokes.”

The biggest jokester is the head man, Moore, who thinks he’s a comedian, according to Rogers.

When pressed about Moore’s worst joke, Konig tried to recall the most recent one. Both players agreed that Moore stays away from the dad jokes, preferring to use a bunch of puns for laughs.

“When he was like ‘Hip and hop, some of y’all listen to hip-hop music on the radio,’” Cunane recalled. “‘So get to hipping and hopping on the block.’”

That brought additional laughs from the group, which looks to advance to the Elite 8 for the first time since 1998. All season — from the 22-game win streak to the injuries — the Wolfpack has remained the same, enjoying the ride. What you see is what you get.

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