GREENSBORO, N.C. – North Carolina State coach Wes Moore is thrilled to be back in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game as the Wolfpack looks to defend their title.
Elissa Cunane had another huge game with 23 points and nine rebounds, and the third-ranked Wolfpack had to battle back from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to beat Georgia Tech 66-61 on Saturday in the semifinals.
Moore knows his team is going to need to play better Sunday against No. 5 Louisville if it hopes to repeat. The Cardinals beat Syracuse 72-59 in the other semifinal on Saturday.
“We found a way to win, but I wouldn’t say we’re clicking by any means,” Moore said. “We’re going to have to match their intensity, and we’re going to have to execute a little bit better offensively and hopefully shoot the ball a little bit better because Louisville is going to score points.”
Lotta-Maj Lahtinen chipped in with 17 points and five assists for the Yellow Jackets (15-8), who led most of the second half but went cold in the waning moments.
Cunane finished 8 of 13 from the field and helped seal the win with two clutch free throws with 8.8 seconds left, finishing 7 of 8 from the foul line for N.C. State (19-2).
“We were doing our best to contain her,” said Georgia Tech forward Lorela Cubaj, who finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds. “At the end of the day we’ve just got to do that for 40 minutes. The last four minutes were crucial and she showed up.”
Georgia Tech closed the first half on a 9-2 run to take a 33-28 lead into the locker room with Cubaj and Lahtinen combining for seven of those points. The Yellow Jackets would stretch the lead to 10 early in the fourth quarter.
But the Wolfpack didn’t panic, taking the lead with 2:27 left behind 3s from Kai Crutchfield and Jakia Brown-Turner and back-to-back baskets in the low post from Cunane.
“We needed something to spark our mojo,” Crutchfield said.
Kayla Jones added 12 points and eight rebounds for the Wolfpack.
“I really felt like the first half Georgia Tech just played harder than us,” Moore said. “They outscored us in fast-break points, they outrebounded us, they had outscored us on second-chance points. … They just hit us in the mouth and took it to us, and second half we competed a lot better. It’s what champions do. They find a way to win.”
Said Georgia Tech coach Nell Fortner: “Really proud of how we fought hard today and gave ourselves a chance to win.”
Georgia Tech: Cubaj proved tough to stop in the low post and will be a problem in the NCAA Tournament with her array of moves, including a nifty hook shot. Lahtinen is a strong scorer and made 8 of 11 shots from the field. “I think they have a chance to make a run” in the tournament, Moore said.
NC State: Cunane was strong inside, but the Wolfpack also got big plays from Crutchfield and Brown-Turner in the pivotal fourth quarter. Both finished with 10 points.
CUNANE’S BIG TOURNAMENT
Cunane, who grew up near Greensboro, is in the midst of another terrific ACC Tournament. She had a game-high 27 points and nine rebounds in a 68-55 win over Virginia Tech in the quarterfinals, connecting on 10 of 15 shots from the floor and going 7 of 8 from the foul line.
“It’s tournament time, so I definitely stepped up my game,” Cunane said. “I know that there’s not a lot of people out there that can guard me if my teammates are getting me the ball, and we’ve been shooting it really well from the outside, so that leaves up the middle to be open.”
NC State beat then-No. 1 ranked Louisville 74-60 last month. … Georgia Tech shot just 3 of 13 from the field. … Georgia Tech only attempted six free throws in the game.
Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets will wait to hear where they are seeded in the upcoming NCAA Tournament after finishing third in the conference regular-season standings.
NC State: The Wolfpack looks for its second straight ACC title on Sunday.