Women’s Wednesday: Elissa Cunane’s breakout season for No. 8 Wolfpack

AP Images
0 Comments

Elissa Cunane notched just 11 starts in 34 games her freshman year, as N.C. State lost to Louisville in the ACC Semifinals and eventually fell to Iowa in the Sweet Sixteen. She was averaging 13.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game.

However, just one year later, a lot has changed for one of the best center’s in the league. 

Cunane is now the leading scorer and rebounder for a 23-4 breakout Wolfpack team that is not only ranked eighth in the AP Poll, but will likely be a fierce contender in this year’s NCAA Tournament. 

“I think I had to have a little bit more leadership and impact being a year older and with some great seniors leaving last year,” Cunane explained. “They left us to pick up where they left off… I had bigger shoes to fill so I’ve stepped up my game.”

The 6-foot-5 center has certainly stepped up her game, averaging 16.9 ppg and 10.1 rpg, as well as shooting almost 40 percent on 33 attempts from beyond the arch. Cunane also leads the team with 32 blocks, and has 13 double-doubles on the season. 

The sophomore has started all 27 of the Wolfpack’s games so far, and finds herself a leader on a team that has plenty of veteran players. Of the starting five, three are older than Cunane, and half of the team is comprised of upperclassmen.

“I’ve definitely gotten everything from them, they’ve really laid the foundation for what a leader on this team needs to be and what it looks like,” Cunane said of her older teammates. “We’ve put away our differences of age and grade, because anyone can be a leader to anyone.”

N.C. State lost two top talents—Kiara Leslie and DD Rogers—to graduation, and while they were left with the majority of their team, the loss was felt. Leslie led with 15.9 points per game and put the team on her back in the tournament, while Rogers averaged 7.9 rebounds per game, grabbing a career-high 20 rebounds her senior season.

Despite this loss, the Wolfpack have bounced back with numbers they didn’t have last year.

“I think one thing is just that it’s a new year,” Cunane explained, when asked why this season was different. “After a season ends, you’re never going to be able to play with that same group again. We have three girls back from injury that we didn’t have last year, so we’re not shorthanded. We have subs that can come in, whereas last year we weren’t as deep.”

The team has shown incredible determination, rallying to a 50-48 comeback win over Miami last week after trailing through three quarters and notching their first win in Coral Gables since 2007. 

“We’re still staying humble,” Cunane emphasized. “This whole year has been very special for us. Everyone on the team really enjoys each other’s presence. When we’re hit with high highs or low lows, we’ve been really able to stick with each other.”

The Wolfpack had one of those “low lows” moments following their exciting win over Miami, with a tough loss to ACC foe and in-state rival Duke on Monday. A 22-point fourth quarter rally couldn’t save them this time as they fell to the unranked Blue Devils.

However, N.C. State has a chance to retain their No. 2 ranking in the ACC going into the conference tournament, as its two final regular season games are against struggling Virginia and Syracuse. With two more wins, the Wolfpack could stay ahead of Duke in the rankings by one win. 

And they have a great chance of doing just that.

Moving forward and not dwelling in the past is exactly what head coach Wes Moore has stressed to his his players, as he’s kept them “grounded through everything.”

“Something Moore always talks about is that we stay humble and that we’re always focused on our next game, not two games ahead or the one we just played,” Cunane said. “To enjoy the success but tomorrow it’s, ‘get back to work’, because we have everything to fight for.”

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

– Sabrina Ionescu recorded her 25th career triple-double in a 93-61 victory over California and her 26th in Oregon’s 74-66 win over Stanford—the Ducks’ 14th consecutive win.

With her 1,000th rebound in the third quarter against the Cardinal, Ionescu became the first player (male or female) in Division I history to ever reach 2,000 career points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists.

No. 3 Oregon’s massive win over No. 4 Stanford brings them just one game away from clinching a third straight Pac-12 outright title. 

– UConn’s No. 6 ranking in the AP Poll last week marked the first time that the Huskies weren’t in the top 5 since Feb. 5, 2007, ending a 253 week streak. 

– The top seven teams in the AP Poll remain the same, as N.C. State is the big jump from tenth to eighth. This week’s Poll can be found here.

– This weekend saw a flurry of upsets, with DePaul, Arizona, Mississippi State, UCLA and Florida State all falling to unranked opponents. They all dropped in the rankings, while Northwestern, Gonzaga and Texas A&M gained momentum.

– The Gamecocks captured the SEC regular-season title on Sunday with a 67-58 win over Kentucky in head coach Dawn Staley’s 300th win.

– Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey becomes the fastest male or female Division I coach to get to 600 wins in the Lady Bears’ 77-62 victory over Texas Tech. Baylor then crushed Oklahoma 101-69 in its following game, with all 11 scoring on the night. 

– Arizona’s Sam Thomas scored a career-high 31 points in Aari McDonald’s absence as the No. 11 Wildcats dominated Utah 85-69. 

While it may not be during the game, this deserves a shoutout. This week’s Play of the Week goes to the five consecutive half-court shots made by South Dakota State:

A case can be made for Sabrina Ionescu to win player of the week almost every week. However, she deserves this week’s Player of the Week after reaching multiple stunning milestones on Monday.