To do it, the Wolfpack will have to tune out what’s expected to be a Huskies-friendly crowd in Bridgeport, Connecticut, about 80 miles southwest of UConn’s campus in Storrs.
“I think tomorrow is a home game for them. There’s no question about that,” NC State star center and WNBA prospect Elissa Cunane told reporters Sunday.
South Carolina, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament whom NC State fell to in its season opener, earned the top seed in the Greensboro Regional, followed by Stanford in Spokane, Washington. As the No. 3 overall seed, NC State was slotted as the No. 1 seed in Bridgeport, and via S-curve so were the Huskies, who once healthy went on a tear across the end of the regular season and Big East tournament to earn the No. 6 overall seed (No. 2 in Bridgeport).
NC State and Notre Dame had respectable contingents show up for Saturday’s regional semifinal, which the Wolfpack won 66-63. But there was no mistaking which team the majority of fans came to root for. One of the loudest cheers of the NC State-Notre Dame contest came when UConn players entered the arena to watch the game.
“Connecticut fans are great,” NC State coach Wes Moore said. “If I’m out somewhere traveling or something, I run into them. They love their women’s basketball, and you’ve got to respect that.”
The Wolfpack have one thing in their favor that they will look to lean on: experience prevailing over top teams in hostile environments.
Last year, NC State became the first NCAA women’s team to beat two No. 1 teams on the road in the same season when it took down South Carolina 54-46 on Dec. 3 and Louisville 74-60 on Feb. 1.
This season, the Wolfpack also beat then-No. 6 Indiana, whom UConn defeated in the Sweet 16 on Saturday, in Bloomington. Overall, they were 9-1 in away games in 2021-22 and 6-0 on neutral courts.
“We’ve gone to South Carolina and beat them at their home, we’ve gone to Louisville, beat them at their home, Indiana this year,” Cunane said. “We’re capable of beating a great team on their home court, so we know we’re capable of doing it tomorrow.”
“I think no doubt that gives me confidence, so hopefully it gives them confidence,” Moore added.
NC State is appearing in its first Elite Eight since 1998 after falling in the Sweet 16 the previous three years. But the Wolfpack aren’t a totally inexperienced team, boasting a starting lineup of three graduate students, a senior and a junior.
That maturity showed when the Wolfpack surged late to beat the No. 5-seeded Irish on Saturday. Notre Dame led for 31:41, but NC State’s 7-0 run in the final 1:23 to close the game, which included Raina Perez’s go-ahead basket on a steal-and-score with 14 seconds to play, made the difference.
“They’re solid. They’re experienced. They know how to win. They play great together. They don’t seem fazed by anything,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “They had 9 million reasons to lose that game [Saturday], and they ended up winning it. It just goes to show you their resolve and their ability to just play and play the whole 40 minutes.”
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