GREENSBORO, N.C. – Wes Moore believed North Carolina State had enough talent to win another Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament when he brought in a graduate transfer to add some experience at the point.
And Raina Perez sure rewarded him for it.
Perez hit a jumper from near the left elbow with 2.1 seconds left to help third-ranked N.C. State beat fifth-ranked Louisville 58-56 in Sunday’s championship game, securing the Wolfpack’s first back-to-back titles in program history.
Perez’s shot broke a tie game in a tense finish between two of the nation’s top teams who remained locked in a one-possession game for the final 4 1/2 minutes.
“This team is just to resilient and they just find a way to win,” Moore said.
In the end, the second-seeded Wolfpack (20-2) again ended the tournament by cutting down nets, posing for selfies and frolicking in balloons from the rafters above.
“Winning once was hard,” tournament MVP Elissa Cunane said of the title runs. “Winning twice was harder.”
It started with Cunane, who scored 20 points as the steadying go-to inside presence after scoring 27 in the quarterfinals against Virginia Tech and 23 in the semifinals against Georgia Tech.
Then there was Perez, last year’s Big West Conference player of the year at Cal State Fullerton. She arrived to replace a veteran point guard in Aislinn Konig, last year’s tourney MVP.
On the winning play, the 5-foot-4 Perez initially started to pass to Cunane rolling into the lane, but had to pull the ball back when the pass wasn’t there. Instead, she collected her feet and shook off six straight misses dating to the second quarter to cleanly bury the jumper.
“I was honestly looking for the pass,” Perez said. “I hadn’t made a shot all second half, so I think I was kind of more in my head. But then they doubled on (Cunane), and I was wide open. I had to take it. And what do you know, it went in.”
The top-seeded Cardinals (23-3) had a final chance, inbounding under their own basket with 1 second left. But two-time ACC player of the year Dana Evans missed a 3 off Kianna Smith’s pass, sending Wolfpack players spilling to midcourt to celebrate.
As Wolfpack players mobbed and hugged each other, Evans stayed down near the Louisville bench, then covered her face with her hands as teammates quickly gathered by her side.
Evans finished with 15 points to lead Louisville, which missed five of its last six shots in the final 3 1/2 minutes.
“You’ve got to sit down and be able to watch (the game) and go, `OK, here’s what I did well, here’s what I did bad,’ and get better at it,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “And unfortunately for us, we had some stretches that we were not very good.”
N.C. State: The Wolfpack broke through last year for the program’s first ACC Tournament title since 1991, part of Moore’s push to do “special things.” Add another big item to that list, with the Wolfpack following a comeback from 10 down in the fourth quarter against Georgia Tech by rallying from eight down in the final 9 minutes Sunday.
Louisville: The Cardinals claimed the league regular-season title and the top seed after edging N.C. State by a small win-percentage margin even though the Wolfpack took the only meeting, winning on the road while the Cardinals held a No. 1 ranking. But after rallying from seven down midway through the third quarter to push ahead 48-40 on Evans’ lone 3, they ended up falling short of their second ACC Tournament title.
Evans never found any rhythm in Greensboro.
She had a season-low eight points in the quarterfinals against Wake Forest, then had 13 against in the semifinals against Syracuse while making 7 of 26 shots (26.9%).
She started 2 for 11 Sunday before suddenly getting rolling with multiple tough third-quarter drives and a fourth-quarter 3-pointer. She also had Louisville’s last basket, banking in a shot over the 6-5 Cunane for a 56-55 lead with 1:59 left.
But she followed with a turnover, then missed an off-balance shot leading up to Perez’s winner.
“I tried to kind of get a rhythm, a flow,” said Evans, who wiped away tears during her postgame video conference. “I couldn’t get in the flow at all.”
Both teams are headed to Texas to play in the NCAA Tournament as high seeds, with the Wolfpack possibly positioned to claim at No. 1 seed with Sunday’s win.