In every college basketball season, there are always teams that exceed the expectations placed on them. One of those teams this season is NC State, which finished the regular season with a 22-7 record.
The Wolfpack missed the NCAA tournament last season despite winning 20 games, including 10 in the ACC. But this year they are a changed team, notching upsets of four ranked teams since the end of 2016. They toppled No. 2 Notre Dame on Dec. 29, and four days later took down No. 6 Florida State. Almost two weeks after that it was No. 12 Duke who was their next victim. After NC State’s Feb. 2 takedown of No. 9 Louisville, they were voted into the AP top 25 poll for the first time in three years. They are carrying this momentum into the conference tournament, where they open play tomorrow as the fourth seed.
So what changed this season? How did they manage to beat those top teams?
Coach Wes Moore, in his fourth year as head coach, says the leadership of his four seniors — Dominique Wilson, Miah Spencer, Ashley Williams and Jennifer Mathurin – is the key to the Wolfpack’s surge.
“We’ve got four seniors that have been with us for four years and just have been awesome leaders,” Moore said. “We hit a couple of road bumps in December, and our kids after Christmas break came back focused and ready to make something happen. Back-to-back wins against Florida State and Notre Dame gave our team confidence, and our seniors have stepped up and carried us.”
Two ave stood out from the rest: Wilson, a guard, is averaging 13.2 points per game, which leads the team, and fellow guard Spencer is averaging 12.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and a team-high five assists per game.
“I feel like over the years, we have had our ups and downs,” Wilson said. “My freshmen year we were challenged as a team. We had six seniors who were very good and then after they left, we had to build the program back up.”
“I think many teams expected us to be good, I just don’t think they were expecting us to beat the teams that we’ve beaten. I would definitely say we are a team to watch out for.”
As seniors, Wilson and Spencer have had their moments in those big games.
Wilson was the leading scorer in wins against Florida State and Notre Dame and Spencer hit the game-winning shot in OT against Louisville.
“Maya is a great leader and she’s like a Swiss army knife,” Moore said. “She may not be great at just one thing, but she’s very good at everything it seems like. She’s the first player in NC State women’s basketball history to garner 1,500 points and have over 450 assists. So that’s special.”
“As for Dominique Wilson, we ask a lot of her. She’s a scorer for us and each night she takes big shots for us. We also ask her to defend the other team’s best perimeter scorer. She has risen to the occasion and done an awesome job for us. They have provided our team with great leadership.”
The ACC regular season has been competitive and NC State has been in the middle of it. Winning 12 games is no easy feat in the ACC.
As the No. 4 seed in the tournament, NC State enters ahead of perennial power Louisville. The seed is key as it provides a double bye, and the Wolfpack don’t have to play an extra game.
Spencer believes her team could go deep in the ACC tournament, but Moore says they have to take it one game at a time.
“I know it’s cliche coach talk, but simply, we just have to play one game at a time, and see how long we stick around,” he said.
Making the NCAA tournament would bring much joy for both seniors, because it is their last chance.
“I’m excited,” Wilson said. “We have a good chance. I would love to make a run and stay as long as possible in the tournament. But at the same time, I know I have to be focused and be a leader to help the team.”
Spencer shared the sentiments.
“I’m just excited about going back to the NCAA tournament. Not just getting there, but hopefully making a run to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, and going to Dallas for the Final Four is definitely a dream. And the fact that it’s my last one, I just have to take full advantage of it. Just play the best I can and help lead my team to where we want to be.”