Wes Moore, NC State has added depth this season to work with

At the 7:33 mark of the first quarter against North Carolina A&T, N.C. State women’s basketball coach Wes Moore turned to his bench.

Sophomore center Elissa Cunane had picked up a quick foul, so Moore brought in senior forward Erika Cassell. At the end of last season, Moore might have waited a little longer to substitute when a starter picked up an early foul.

He didn’t have much of a choice. By the time the 2018-19 Wolfpack team rolled into Greensboro for the Sweet 16, season-ending injuries had decimated its roster.

N.C. State started last season with 22 straight wins, but an unusual amount of season-ending injuries forced Moore to use a six-man rotation late in the season.

By the end of the first quarter of Wednesday’s 80-44 win, Moore went seven deep, with a total of 11 players seeing action by the end of the game and 10 of them playing 10 minutes or more. Last year in a season-ending loss to Iowa, two starters played all 40 minutes, with the remaining starters playing at least 33.

For the time being, Moore will be able to go at least eight deep. And minutes will improve for a few players trying to work themselves back from last year’s injuries.

“I don’t think Grace Hunter or Erika Cassell either one are 100 percent,” Moore said. “I know they are not 100 percent. I really don’t know how close they are right now. It’s good to get them out there and have them start working back.”

Cassell played 12 minutes, scoring six points and grabbing nine rebounds. Hunter logged 20 minutes and finished with three points.

Moore also expects Kaila Ealey back in a few weeks. Ealey didn’t play against A&T. That opened doors for Moore to play four true freshmen, including Jada Boyd, who led the team in scoring (18) and rebounds (11) off the bench.

Freshman Jakia Brown-Turner started and scored the first four points, finishing with 14. Brown-Turner logged 20 minutes in her Wolfpack debut. Boyd played 22 off the bench. Moore has to bring the freshmen along faster than he would like, but the veterans are glad to have able bodies to practice against.

“That’s something we love,” junior forward Kayla Jones said. “We’re glad there aren’t any injuries this year, we pray that they don’t happen. The rotation is better, people go in, go out and that gives the freshmen a chance to learn how to play before we start ACC play.”

Jones scored 14 points, one off from her career-high. In the first half Moore called Jones the best player on the floor. When the injuries happened last season, no player benefited more than Jones, who saw her minutes increase sooner than she probably expected in her career.

“If you’re playing well I’m going to ride it and go with it,” Moore said. “I told the players some nights you might not get as many minutes as you would like and you don’t have any control over it if someone is playing well.”

That’s a luxury Moore didn’t have last year. All available bodies had to contribute, it didn’t matter if someone was playing well or struggling. His top three returning scorers struggled against A&T, but luckily there were enough players to pick up the slack.

Returning starters Aislinn Konig, Kai Crutchfield and Elissa Cunane combined for just 15 points.

“I’d like to see them play a little better,” Moore said about that trio. “I might sleep better at night.”

But he’ll sleep fine knowing that Jones, Cassell and Hunter, along with the freshmen, can be there for relief when needed. Moore may have additional bodies once Ealey returns and they determine if freshman Elle Sutphin and sophomore Jada Rice will redshirt.

Sutphin graduated a year early from high school, but sat down with Moore earlier in the week and expressed an interest in taking a redshirt. Rice played 74 minutes last season as a freshman, but didn’t dress out against the Aggies.

“We knew coming in that she (Sutphin) could use another year of developing,” Moore said. “Jada Rice may do the same thing as well, she’s considering redshirting. Those are decisions that can change.”

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