ACC week five: steady as a rock

Kiara Leslie has been scoring big for NC State this season. Photo courtesy of Wolfpack Athletics.
Kiara Leslie has been scoring big for NC State this season. Photo courtesy of Wolfpack Athletics.

The fifth week of the season in the ACC didn’t do a ton in terms of shifting conference positioning or narrative. The results of the games were, for the most part, as expected. The remaining unbeaten squads stayed unbeaten, and everyone else essentially held steady, with one notable exception. (More on that in a bit.)

It was a ho-hum week. The most notable anomaly was meteorological, as snow caused the cancellation of some Sunday games in North Carolina. Other than that, things look nearly identical to last week in the standings.

Louisville hold a 10-0 record and a No. 5 ranking, which will likely improve at least one spot given then-No. 3 Oregon’s loss to unranked Michigan State Sunday. The Cardinals sleepwalked through a 102-62 blowout over UT Martin early in the week, which was the easy part. Sunday’s 80-75 win over No. 19 Kentucky was a little closer than Jeff Walz probably would have liked, even if his squad got the desired result. In handing the in-state rival Wildcats their first loss of the year, Louisville simultaneously earned a quality W while also burnishing Asia Durr’s year-end awards resume. Durr poured in 32 points on 13-25 shooting and added two rebounds, three assists, and a steal for good measure. Louisville survived a ghastly afternoon from behind the arc (Durr was 2-10, the team was 3-13 overall), and shooting even remotely resembling their normal clip would have widened the margin of victory significantly.

To wit: even with Sunday’s atrocious three-point performance, the Cardinals are still shooting .394 behind the arc on the season. It’s also a good thing they got double-digit scoring efforts from three other starters (Sam Fuehring and Jazmine Jones, 12 each; Bionca Dunham 11) and 10 from Dana Evans off the bench. This team continues to hang its offensive hat on Durr’s brilliance. Part of that is by design, but it’s concerning that Fuehring is the team’s only other player averaging double figures nightly. The bench just isn’t contributing much either. As long as Durr continues playing at such a profoundly elite level, it may not matter, but depth and production probably shouldn’t be quite this lopsided if the Cardinals want to crank out another deep run in March.

No. 2 Notre Dame bounced back from the UConn loss (and the subsequent “controversy” of chippy behavior and Twitter apologies) with a sound 72-56 win at Toledo. The Irish got contributions from all the usual suspects: Arike Ogunbowale’s game-high 22 points, Jackie Young’s 14-10 double-double, Jessica Shepard’s 16-8, and Marina Mabrey’s 11 on an efficient 4-7. While the defense wasn’t stellar in the first half, Notre Dame clamped down out of the break, holding Toledo to just 19 total second-half points. This team is still finding itself in some respects, but with their firepower and overall talent level and Muffet McGraw (closing in on 900 career wins) at the helm, the defending champs will only continue to get better and more dangerous.

No. 10 NC State is 10-0. There’s nothing much to say about the Wolfpack’s performance this week. They did exactly what undefeated, top 10 teams are supposed to do against unranked opponents hovering around a .500 win percentage: they took care of business. Behind the continuing excellence of Kiara Leslie, Elissa Cunane, Aislinn Konig, and Grace Hunter, the Pack dispatched Hampton 83-51 and Georgetown 76-65 to stay perfect on the year. (Shout out to senior DD Rogers, who pulled down a game- and career-high 20 boards against the Hoyas.) Keep an eye on their next match up: Dec. 15 vs. Maine. The Black Bears are playing many North Carolina-based institutions this year, and so far they’ve barely lost to Duke (63-66), beaten NC A&T (58-52) and smoked the Heels 85-73 in Carmichael. Wes Moore’s team could have a tougher fight than they thought next Saturday.

Virginia Tech remained perfect as well, at 9-0. The Hokies looked a bit shaky early in their only game of the week, but ultimately pulled away down the stretch to defeat Radford, 55-44. Taylor Emery went off for 21 points, including 14 in the second half, when Tech was struggling to wrest control of the game from the visiting Highlanders. It was a listless overall performance from a team that has rarely looked so ineffectual this year. Dana Mabrey put in 10 points and Aisha Sheppard kicked in 13 off the bench, but no one else contributed much offensively. This game was the Hokies’ lowest-scoring of the season, and the only time they’ve failed to crack 60 thus far. This was likely just a blip of a game, given the consistency and tenacity Kenny Brooks’ team has otherwise displayed this season. But Virginia Tech certainly can’t afford to play a first half this poorly (25 percent FG, 16.67 percent 3FG) against the fiercer competition they’ll face in conference play.

Florida State had a clean sweep of their schedule this week, but not in very convincing fashion. The Seminoles eked out a pair of road wins; 57-56 over Mercer and 57-53 over St. John’s. With an offense that played somewhere between “barely passable” and “not great”, FSU struggled mightily to put up points, coughing up far too many turnovers and failing to capitalize at a high rate when they did finish possessions. Of particular concern was their performance at the stripe. The ‘Noles are averaging 68.6 percent for free throws on the season, which already has them closer to 200th in the nation than 100th. This week, it was 61.5 percent, which would tie them with Duke, Radford, and Charlotte at around 300th, depending on whether pure percentage equals a tie or total attempts factor in to the ratings. For a team whose 9-1 record doesn’t reflect how erratic this team has been at times, failure to convert at the free throw line is not a trend Sue Semrau’s Seminoles will be able to live with in tight games. FSU has to clean that up, and soon.

Boston College split their contests this week to drop to 8-2 on the year, but continue to look impressively ahead of schedule in their rebuild. The Eagles waxed Bryant 83-46 on Thursday, and played one of the more entertaining games of the week when they welcomed No. 14 Minnesota to Chestnut Hill on Sunday. BC ultimately fell short with a 69-77 loss, but gave the Gophers all they could handle, including outscoring them 25-17 in the third quarter to claim a one-point lead heading into the final frame. Behind a monster 25-point outing from Taylor Ortlepp (including 6-11 from deep) and solid scoring/rebounding contributions from Georgia Pineau (12-7) and Emma Guy (12-6), the Eagles were in it right up until the last few minutes. Ill-timed turnovers and fouls ultimately put the game out of reach, but it shouldn’t be lost that BC hung close and tough with a top 15 squad. Of note: the Eagles’ 35 rebounds were the fewest they’ve had in a game all year. (They were outrebounded 35-43 on the day.) As has been the case so far this season, when BC’s rebound margin has a + in front of it, they can beat just about anyone. When it doesn’t, the results will look a lot like Sunday’s game.

Miami moved to 8-2 with a thunderous 78-38 home win over New Orleans. The Hurricanes have an almost pathological aversion to close games this season. Aside from a 63-55 win over Marquette in November, no final margin, win or loss, has been under 10 points, and more than a few have been utter blowouts. Miami is averaging 73.4 points per game while holding opponents to just 59.4, tallying a nifty +14.0 scoring margin despite their two losses. Led by Beatrice Mompremier’s 15.3 ppg, all but one starter is clocking double digits, and Mykea Gray’s 8.4 is nothing to sneeze at. The ‘Canes could stand to clean up a -0.6 turnover margin, but that deficiency can mostly be excused by their pace of play. As long as they keep getting buckets, this team will continue to be a tough out.

No. 15 Syracuse is also 8-2 after ripping off a 95-51 win against Maryland Eastern Shore. The Orange actually trailed 21-24 after one quarter, but kicked up a murderous defensive effort to hold the opposition to 27 total points over the final three frames. ‘Cuse logged 34 points off 21 Hawks turnovers while shooting the lights out (16-41) from deep. Quentin Hillsman’s squad had five players finish in double figures, led by Digna Strautmane’s 17 and standout Tiana Mangakahia’s 14 with eight assists and five rebounds. They also cleaned the glass as a team with authority. Strautmane supplemented her scoring outburst with five boards, and the other big hitters on the day were equally effective (Miranda Drummond 15-7, Amaya Finklea-Guity 14-6, Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi 14-9.) After dropping a close game to Minnesota last week, this was the Orange’s second straight bounceback blowout, and they look formidable as conference play draws nearer.

Georgia Tech moved to 7-3 following a nice 69-42 win over Alabama State. Freshman guard Elizabeth Balogun had herself a game in this one, tossing up 18 points, five dimes, six boards, four steals and a block en route to a game-high 31 +/-. The fact that the Yellow Jackets significantly underperformed their customary shooting splits (.414/.329/.692 this year, .351/.208/.476 on Wednesday) and still managed a comfortable victory is reassuring, so long as the downturn was a fluke and not a trend.

Clemson was the story of the week in the ACC. The Tigers dropped three straight double-digit losses in November, then clawed out three unremarkable wins to get to 5-3. They were as aggressively “blah” a team as you could find in the conference. This week flipped that script in convincing fashion. Amanda Butler’s squad smoked High Point and Rhode Island by a combined 163-131, scoring 80+ in both games for the first time since Nov. 8. Kobi Thornton, Danielle Edwards and Simone Westbrook were electric, notching 106 total points between them for the week to go along with Thornton’s 17 rebounds. (Tylar Bennett also logged a 10-point, 12-rebound effort against High Point.) The now 7-3 Tigers finally put together two coherent, complete performances and looked like the game was slowing down, coming easier to them after their early struggles. Still, there are flaws to be addressed. Clemson is struggling after halftime, having been outscored 337-346 in second halves this year. (They broke even against High Point, and were on the wrong end of a 40-35 margin vs. Rhode Island.) They’re also shooting an anemic 23/94 from deep, and have yet to win on the road. Nonetheless, they’re showing flashes of being able to climb out of the conference’s bottom-third morass, and this felt like a statement week that could lead to greater success if the Tigers can continue to refine their play and tighten up the problem areas.

Everyone else is still just hovering. Duke is 6-3. UNC and Wake Forest are 6-4. Pitt is 6-5 and UVA is 4-6. The Devils and Heels with play make-ups due to snow cancellations, in addition to the rest of their games before conference play, and still have the best shot at emerging from this group. But they have to prove it on the court first.

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