If you're reaching heights that haven't been reached since the late Kay Yow was coaching, you're doing something right at N.C. State.
For the first time in 11 years, N.C. State's women's basketball team is heading back to the Sweet 16 after a 74-60 victory over former ACC nemesis Maryland in the NCAA Tournament's Round of 32 on Sunday.
Yow, who died of breast cancer in 2009, took the Wolfpack to the Sweet 16 in 2007 and 11 times in all.
"I was with coach Yow in 1995 when we went to the Sweet 16," Wolfpack coach Wes Moore said. "I think she'd be proud of this team."
The Wolfpack were picked to finish 10th in the ACC, but now have 26 wins, another first-since-Yow feat. The last time State had more than 25 in a single season was 1991.
"(Yow) battled cancer for 20 years and she kept coming back. That's what they've done, just the way they keep fighting," said Moore, choking up. "Think back to the Louisville game: we were down 26-1 to start the game, how 'bout that? You feel like you're out there in your underwear in front of 3,000 people. Next thing you know it's a four-point game with three minutes left and we got the ball. We had a chance. That's the way they are. They ignore the noise and keep coming."
The fourth-seeded Wolfpack will play on Friday at a time to be determined in the Kansas City regional semifinal against either 9-seed Oklahoma State (21-10) or 1-seed Mississippi State (33-1). Mississippi State is the reigning national runner-up most famous for stopping UConn's 111-game win streak in last year's Final Four. That second round game is scheduled for Monday at Mississippi State at 9 p.m.
"We still kept our head up when we were 1-3 in the ACC because I really believe in this team, and we just came out and just proved a lot of people wrong," senior forward Chelsea Nelson said.
Playing against her alma mater, Maryland graduate and N.C. State redshirt junior Kiara Leslie showed no signs of split allegiances in facing her former teammates.
Leslie, a Holly Springs native who redshirted at Maryland last year due to injury and graduated during the summer before transferring, led the Pack in points (21), rebounds (11) and steals (three).
"My teammates knew that this game was important to me," Leslie said. "I think they helped me get comfortable and get open shots and then they also came ready to play so I'm really proud of them."
Having not seen Leslie play in a full year, her former Terrapins players may have been caught off-guard by her new-found range. She made 7 of 14 shots and 2 of 3 from 3.
"I don't know how she did it emotionally today," Moore said. "I wouldn't have handled it, but what a great job by her."
Leslie's rebounds were critical to a team that spent most of the first half with forwards Nelson and Akela Maize in foul trouble.
After trailing 32-26 at halftime, Maryland (26-8) cut the lead to one in the early third quarter but was answered with a 16-2 run by N.C. State (26-8) to put the game out of reach. The Wolfpack was 4 of 5 from 3 in the third — including two from freshman Kai Crutchfield, who was thrust into the action as starter Kaila Ealey also spent most of the game in foul trouble — and took a 56-40 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Maryland (26-8) entered the game seventh in the country in 3-point percentage (39.1 percent) and guard Kristen Confroy was ninth (45 percent). Yet the Terps were chased off the line by the Pack's persistent pressure — with Leslie guarding Kaila Charles (four points) and Aislinn Konig guarding Confroy (zero points) — and finished the game just 0-for-5 without one attempt by Confroy.
"I thought Konig did an excellent job," Confroy said. "I couldn't even get a look at a 3-pointer."
Maryland shot just 37.3 from the field. Brianna Fraser led the Terps with 17 points of the bench.
State had five players scoring in double figures: Leslie, Konig (12), Ealey (12), Maize (11) and Nelson (10). Crutchfield's eight were the team's only bench points.