The NCAA tournament selection committee wanted N.C. State’s women’s team to win more big games.
The Wolfpack (12-3, 2-0 ACC) knocked off No. 2 Notre Dame on Dec. 29, to end the Fighting Irish’s 35-game ACC winning streak, and then followed that up with a road win at No. 6 Florida State on Monday.
That’s a pair of wins over top 10 RPI teams with a chance to add another big win, at home with No. 14 Miami (12-2, 1-1) on Thursday.
“There’s no doubt our players have a chip on their shoulder and feel like they have something to prove after last year,” fourth-year N.C. State coach Wes Moore said.
The Wolfpack went 20-11 last season and 10-6 in the ACC. It finished tied for fifth in the conference with Miami. The Hurricanes were a fifth-seed in the NCAA field. The Wolfpack got left out.
“Part of the (committee’s) argument was we didn’t have enough of these big wins,” Moore said.
N.C. State was just 1-5 against ranked ACC opponents last season. The league was down, by its usual standard, even though Syracuse was the national runner-up and Notre Dame and Florida State reached the Sweet 16.
Moore won’t forget last year’s snub any time soon. The team held a viewing party for ESPN at Sammy’s near campus and couldn’t believe it when its name wasn’t called in the 64-team field.
“That was a really tough day,” Moore said.
If Moore had known then what he knows now, that it would fuel an incredible start to the conference schedule, he might actually take the trade.
Led by a quartet of seniors – guards Dominique Wilson, Miah Spencer and Ashley Williams and forward Jennifer Mathurin – the Wolfpack has used the disappointment from a year ago to its advantage.
Wilson and Spencer share the team scoring lead, 10.5 points per game, with junior forward Chelsea Nelson.
“It all starts with our four seniors,” Moore said. “They really think the game and have provided great leadership.”
And a healthy dose of defensive intensity, too. The Wolfpack has held opponents to 53.9 points per game, which ranks second in the ACC, and allowed them to shoot just 33.6 percent from the floor, which ranks third in the league.
N.C. State held Notre Dame to just six points in the third quarter of its 70-62 win. The Wolfpack limited FSU, the ACC’s top-scoring team, to a season-low 61 points in Monday’s road win. The Seminoles shot a season-worst 34.8 percent from the floor.
If you play the comparison game, N.C. State is in pretty good company. No. 1 Connecticut was the only other team this season to hold Notre Dame under 65 points before the Wolfpack’s historic win at Reynolds Coliseum. And the powerful Huskies only beat FSU by two points, 78-76 on Nov. 14.
Free throws have been a blessing for the Wolfpack. Wilson was 14 of 14 from the foul line against FSU and the team finished 20 of 25. In the win over Notre Dame, the Wolfpack made 14 of its 15 free throws.
Making free throws and closing out games has gone from a problem to a plus for Moore’s team. The Wolfpack led by 11 points in the fourth quarter against both LSU and Tulane in nonconference games.
LSU came back for a 59-58 win on Nov. 26 in the Paradise Jam and Tulane closed out strong for a 63-58 home win on Dec. 17.
“We probably let a couple slip away in the nonconference schedule,” Moore said. “Hopefully we learned from it.”
Moore’s team excels at learning from difficult lessons and it has also shown it can handle success by taking the Notre Dame upset in stride.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
No. 14 Miami women at N.C. State
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Reynolds Coliseum, Raleigh
Online/radio: ACC Network Extra, 88.1-WKNC