NC State’s season comes to an end in the Sweet 16

NC State falls to Iowa in NCAA Sweet 16 women’s action

Check out photos from NCAA Women's Tournament Sweet 16 action as the NC State Wolfpack battles the Iowa Hawkeyes Saturday, March 30, 2019.
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Check out photos from NCAA Women's Tournament Sweet 16 action as the NC State Wolfpack battles the Iowa Hawkeyes Saturday, March 30, 2019.

The stage was a familiar one, but maybe it was too big for N.C. State. Or maybe it was Iowa and its front line that was too big, causing too many problems for the Wolfpack in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women’s tournament.

N.C. State had its chances, but each time the Wolfpack made a run, the great wall of the Hawkeyes, led by Megan Gustafson, turned the Pack away. And so the Wolfpack, which battled injury after injury this year, fell short in an attempt to keep the dream season alive.

And despite an impressive comeback attempt in the third quarter by the Pack, Iowa was too big, and too good, knocking off N.C. State 79-61 in the Sweet 16 in the Greensboro Coliseum.

The Wolfpack (28-6) finished the season in the round of 16 for the second straight year, with the elusive Elite 8 within striking distance, but unattainable once again.

Gustafson was as good as advertised, scoring 27 points and pulling down 12 rebounds, setting an NCAA single-season record for double-doubles with 33 this season. At the start of the game N.C. State built a defensive fort around Gustafson, with freshman Elissa Cunane (14 points, 11 rebounds) guarding her with help, leaving the other post player open.

“Gustafson is obviously an awesome player,” Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said. “Then I felt like the rest of the team really had a great game around her. When they are hitting 3s and she does what she does on the block it’s a tough match up.”

For a while that worked for the Pack. But then those other forwards -- often Hannah Stewart -- starting hitting shots. If it wasn’t Stewart, it was one of the guards left alone that made N.C. State pay. Stewart finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds to compliment Gustafson.

“They shot the heck out of it from 3 and that’s what you have to hope doesn’t happen when you are playing them,” Moore said. “You’re going to have to give something up, you have to pick your poison and they made us pay.”

It also didn’t help that Cunane, the freshman returning to her hometown for a second tournament this year, picked up her second foul early in the second quarter.

Iowa (29-6) used a pair of unanswered runs to build on its double-digit lead in the first half. First the Hawkeyes went on an 8-0 run after the Wolfpack went up 9-8, the last time N.C. State led. The Wolfpack missed five shots in a row during that span, at the same time Gustafson, who leads the nation in points and field goals made, started to get going.

N.C. State didn’t back down -- not this team that’s been handed a short roster all year. The Wolfpack, led by Cunane and senior Kiara Leslie (16 points, 9 rebounds), made it a five-point game midway through the third.

Leslie and Cunane scored all 12 points during the run. Aislinn Konig (10 points) then got into the scoring act, her layup making it 43-38 in favor of Iowa with 6:41 remaining in the third quarter. But the Hawkeyes had an answer. That answer, of course, was Gustafson, who scored back-to-back layups, with a hand from Alexis Sevillian, who knocked down a three to start the 10-2 run.

“The ball just didn’t go in,” Moore said about the sudden barraged of missed shots. “I thought that was our time to put some pressure on them and maybe get over the top, but it just wasn’t meant to be. Iowa was the better team today.”

That was the final dagger for N.C. State, which shot 38.5 percent from the floor in the third quarter after getting off the the hot start.

Iowa, though, shot 53.3 percent in the third, and that was too big a hole for the Wolfpack to dig out of in this game. The Hawkeyes shot 38 percent from three for the game and 54 percent the for the game. That was right on cue for Iowa, who leads the nation in field goal percentage (52 percent).

Moore added that he was disappointed in the first half, saying “that didn’t look like our team.”

The Wolfpack shot 9-of-28 from the floor in the first half, and trailed by as many as 14.

“I personally take some of the blame for us starting out slow,” Leslie said after the game. “But I’m thankful for the way that we finished this year.”

N.C. State will lose Leslie and DD Rogers, who scored 12 points in her final game, but can build around Cunane, who grew into the No. 2 scoring option, as well as Konig and Kai Crutchfield, who was thrust into a starting role after the injuries hit. They will once again be led by Moore, who confirmed he will be back in Raleigh next season.

“I think the whole body of work you have to be proud of these players and what they’ve been through,” Moore said. “They could have really hung their heads and got down four different occasions and they didn’t. I’m proud of that.”

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