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

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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. 

Thursday’s Things to Know: Arizona can’t finish at Oregon, Wichita State takes early American lead and Michigan wins in 2OT

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Thursday night start with significant news that Washington point guard Quade Green will be academically ineligible for at least the next two months, and then things really got interesting.  Here’s what you need to know from a night of overtimes and early jockeying for conference positioning.

1. Arizona misses huge chance in Eugene

Arizona blew a massive opportunity Thursday night.

The Wildcats had a chance to firmly establish themselves as the Pac-12’s premier team, put themselves in the league’s driver’s seat and land a major NCAA tournament resume win when they led No. 9 Oregon by six with less than 2 minutes left in the game at Knight Arena. For a team whose best win was at home against Illinois in the season’s first week, that’s an opportunity you can’t miss.

Which is exactly what Arizona did.

Oregon scored six-straight points over the final 1:38 of regulation, including a game-tying jumper by Payton Pritchard with 28 seconds remaining, and the Wildcats missed two shots and then turned it over in the final possession of overtime to fall to the Ducks, 74-73, in frustrating fashion.

Arizona got a tough whistle down the stretch Zeke Nnaji maybe getting fouled on a potential game-winner with 5 seconds left without drawing a call, and then when officials blowing a play dead when it appeared Pritchard threw the ball back toward an unguarded basket before landing out of bounds. That makes it tough, but it’s a conference road game against a top-10 opponent. It’s gonna be tough.

The loss is obviously not something that’s going to hurt Arizona – a lot of teams are going to lose in Eugene over the next two months – but a win could have been monumentally helpful. Before we get into the nuts and bolts, let’s just examine it from a public perception angle. The Wildcats were ranked 24th, and, given how AP voters typically behave, will probably fall outside the top-25, even if that’s silly considering they lost on the road to a top-10 team. Arizona may have showed itself to be the best team in the Pac-12 by taking Oregon to OT and nearly winning in Eugene, but there’s a pretty good chance Arizona is playing without a number next to its name next week.

To the things that really matter. Arizona has two “good” losses – at Baylor, vs. Gonzaga – and one whatever loss, St. John’s on a neutral, and that’s why the computers like them, but their resume is pretty thin with something pretty important: Good wins. It’s been two months since they beat a perfectly fine but not particularly remarkable Illini team in Tucson, and their best win since then depends on how you feel about New Mexico State, Arizona State and Wake Forest. And no one feels that great about that trio of teams.

A win at Oregon would have not only been a statement, but a serious NCAA tournament resume builder, something that isn’t exactly in strong supply across the Pac-12.  The league once again isn’t great, and that means needle-moving wins aren’t a plentiful resource. To outplay Oregon for most of the night Thursday on the Ducks’ floor only to return home with an L is a pretty tough pill to swallow if you’re Sean Miller or his players.

Arizona’s performance made me pretty confident that they’re the best team in the Pac-12, but my opinion is worth less than the Wildcats’ Nov. 24 win against Long Beach State (KenPom No. 305).

2. Shockers knock off Memphis

Even without James Wiseman, Memphis has a roster that can compete for an AAC championship. The Tigers ripped off a series of wins without the potential No. 1 NBA draft pick, both before and after he decided to hang up his sneakers for the season. Wins against N.C. State and Tennessee are enough to believe in Penny Hardaway’s team even without the stellar freshman. These Tigers still have a chance.

But they’re not the frontrunners.

Wichita State looks to have staked a claim to that status with their 76-67 win over the Tigers on Thursday night at Koch Arena.

The Shockers led by as many as 19 points despite shooting just 32.8 percent from the floor and 36.4 percent from the 3-point line. They did it thanks to 35 trips to the free-throw line and a defense that produced 18 turnovers and held the Tigers to 35.7 percent from the floor while going a ghastly 4 of 21 from 3-point range. Gregg Marshall’s team had six players score at least eight points while Jamarius Burton led the way with 16.

Wichita State is now 2-0 in the American with the best league win across the conference to date. They’re just a little more than a week away from butting heads with another – probably their chief – AAC  contender, Houston, in Wichita.

3. Michigan survives 2OT to beat Purdue

I don’t know if anyone was actually worried about Michigan after Cassius Winston and Michigan State pretty well thumped them Sunday, but getting big performances from Zavier Simpson, Franz Wagner and Jon Teske to overcome 36 points and 20 rebounds from Trevion Williams and beat Purdue 84-78 in double-overtime might help calm some nerves.

Simpson had 22 and nine assists,  Teske had 18 points and nine rebounds and Wagner had 15 points and five boards to help power the Wolverines, who are still without second-leading scorer and 50-percent 3-point shooter Isaiah Livers. The junior wing has now missed three-straight games since suffering a groin injury in the early minutes of Michigan’s win against Presbyterian on Dec. 21.

Livers is a huge piece of the Wolverines’ puzzle, and without him their offense shrinks considering the importance of his 3-point shooting.

That doesn’t, however, explain how badly Michigan has gotten beaten inside throughout Big Ten play, with Williams’ huge night the latest in a line of big nights, as noted by The Athletic’s Brendan Quinn:

Michigan might not be the slumbering giant they appeared to be after winning the Battle 4 Atlantis (both Iowa State and North Carolina – Michigan’s first two wins in the Bahamas – are in free fall), but if they can get Livers back soon and figure out a way to contain opposing big men, they’ve got a chance to hang around in a Big Ten race that Michigan State is currently in solid control of.

Tuesday’s Things to Know: No. 1 Kentucky upset, Oregon topples Memphis, Gavitt Games continue

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One week into the new college basketball season and we’ve already seen the No. 1 team lose in back-to-back weeks.

Last week’s Champions Classic saw No. 1 Michigan State get picked off by No. 2 Kentucky. On Tuesday, the No. 1 Wildcats fell in stunning fashion at home to Evansville.

The shocking Kentucky loss made for an surprisingly busy night in college hoops as Oregon and Memphis also played in Portland in a “neutral” matchup of top-15 teams.

1. No. 1 Kentucky suffers stunning loss to Evansville

Although Tuesday night’s slate of games was supposed to be intriguing it wasn’t supposed to give us this sort of excitement.

Evansville and Walter McCarty went into Rupp and exited with a 67-64 win as the No. 1 Wildcats suffered one of the most stunning early-season upsets in recent memory. The Purple Aces soundly outplayed a team that was favored to win by 25 points. We just never see No. 1 teams lose at home to unranked, mid-major teams.

I break down more on some of Kentucky’s early-season issues. The Wildcats are desperately seeking a consistent go-to player while the interior scoring and perimeter shooting leaves a lot to be desired. Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley were the only consistent Kentucky players on offense on Tuesday.

This loss was a big sign that college basketball doesn’t have a dominant team at this point in the season. Things are wide open.

2. No. 14 Oregon takes down No. 13 Memphis, James Wiseman

The top matchup of Tuesday saw the Ducks take care of the Tigers in Portland. Memphis star freshman James Wiseman is continuing to suit up for Memphis despite the NCAA’s claim of ineligibility.

That didn’t matter to Oregon.

This was a solid overall effort from the Ducks as Payton Pritchard (14 points, six assists) made some clutch plays to lead a balanced offensive effort. Oregon also got Wiseman in first-half foul trouble as they limited him to 14 points and 12 rebounds on only 5-for-8 shooting.

CBT’s Rob Dauster digs deeper into this one. Oregon is once again looking like a balanced team led by one of the nation’s top lead guards in Pritchard. Memphis has many exciting young players to keep tabs on but they are in for an up-and-down season.

3. Home teams win all three Gavitt Games

The Big Ten/Big East Gavitt Games continued Tuesday night with three more games. Following DePaul’s road win over Iowa on Monday, all three home teams won on the second night of the event.

No. 21 Xavier needed overtime to outlast Missouri in the closest game of the three. Michigan took down Creighton to open up the evening while Butler took down Minnesota behind a big game from Kamar Baldwin.

Tuesday’s results pushes the Big East to a 3-1 mark so far through four games as the Gavitt Games continue the next two nights. While Tuesday’s games were mediocre, Wednesday sees Villanova traveling to Ohio State while Thursday features Seton Hall hosting Michigan State.

Pritchard lifts No. 15 Oregon over Fresno State 71-57

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EUGENE, Ore. — Oregon’s roster is almost completely made over from last season’s Sweet 16 team.

As the No. 15 Ducks’ most experienced player, Payton Pritchard stepped up Tuesday night. He had 24 points with seven rebounds and seven assists in a 71-57 victory over Fresno State in the season opener for both teams. It was his 110th consecutive start.

“He’s one of the best point guards in the country, obviously,” said Anthony Mathis, a senior transfer for the Ducks who played with Pritchard in high school. “We have no worries with Payton.”

Chris Duarte, a junior college transfer and one of nine additions to the roster, added 16 points in his first game with Oregon, and Francis Okoro added 12 points and 10 rebounds for his first career double-double as the Ducks outrebounded the Bulldogs 45-31. Okoro is one of three returning players from last year’s team.

“I thought Francis set a good tone for us (on rebounds),” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “He did a very good job.”

Nate Grimes led the Bulldogs with 13 points.

Oregon took control with a 21-6 run to end the first half at a 38-27 advantage. Duarte had eight points as the Ducks broke away.

After Fresno State scored the opening basket of the second half, Oregon scored the next 10 points, six by Pritchard and the other four on assists by the senior to finish fast breaks.

“Our defense at the start of the second half was really good,” Altman said. “I was really encouraged by the start of the second half.”

Fresno State briefly closed within 64-55 with four minutes left before the Ducks put it away with free throws, finishing with 20 in 27 attempts.

“This was a good start for us, we had to compete,” Altman said. “I knew we’d have our hands full.”

BIG PICTURE

Oregon: In winning its 22nd consecutive home opener, Oregon made Altman the school’s career leader in coaching wins. Altman, in his 10th season with the Ducks, had been tied with Ernie Kent at 235 wins.

Fresno State: The Bulldogs have lost 22 straight games to AP Top 25 teams extending back to the 2002 season. They are 0-9 against the Ducks in games played in Eugene.

THE STREAK GOES ON

Oregon made only one 3-pointer in the game, by Duarte midway through the first half, but it extended Oregon’s streak of 3s made to 750 games.

UP NEXT

Oregon will host Boise State on Saturday in what will be a second tuneup game before the Ducks meet No. 14 Memphis in an anticipated top-20 matchup next Tuesday in Portland.

Fresno State plays its home opener Sunday against Winthrop, a game at which Paul George’s No. 24 jersey will be retired in a halftime ceremony.

Oregon picks up commitment from Rutgers transfer Eugene Omoruyi

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Oregon picked up one of the best transfers on the market on Monday night as Rutgers forward Eugene Omoruyi pledged to the Ducks.

One of the Big Ten’s breakout players last season, the 6-foot-7 Omoruyi put up 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game last season for the Scarlet Knights as the junior shot 44 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point range.

Hit hard with NBA draft early entries, Oregon has rebounded nicely with transfers over the past week. Omoruyi will likely need to sit out this season to play his final season, but he’s potentially a starter who averages double figures once he enters the lineup. The Ducks also took a commitment from perimeter specialist Anthony Mathis last week as the Oregon native will play with former high school teammate Payton Pritchard for his final season.

Oregon head coach Dana Altman has done a great job of hitting the transfer market to boost the talent of his roster each spring as the Ducks have stayed NCAA tournament contenders despite yearly losses. The Ducks will likely pursue some more transfer options as they still have more scholarships to fill.

Oregon lands key grad transfer in New Mexico guard Anthony Mathis

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Oregon picked up one of the nation’s best graduate transfers on Wednesday night as New Mexico guard Anthony Mathis pledged to the Ducks.

A native of West Linn, Oregon, Mathis will head close to home to finish out his college career as he joins former high school teammate Payton Pritchard to form the new backcourt for the Ducks. A sharpshooter who received his fifth year of NCAA eligibility in mid-April, Mathis has been a double-figure scorer the past two seasons for the Lobos as he averaged 14.4 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 41 percent from three-point range last season.

Since Oregon only returns three scholarship players from last season (Pritchard, Will Richardson and Francis Okoro), the addition of Mathis is important since he can come in and contribute right away for the Ducks. Head coach Dana Altman has been successful with grad transfers in the past, including guard Ehab Amin last season as Mathis provides important insurance in case a highly-touted four-man recruiting class isn’t ready to all contribute right away.

The Pritchard and Mathis backcourt should be one of the better duos in the Pac-12 as this addition makes Oregon dangerous once again.