Previewing women’s college basketball’s first Top 5 matchup of the season
By Alex Holmes
Two of the top five teams in the NCAA rankings match up today, with N.C. State looking to take down the top-ranked Louisville Cardinals (KFC Yum! Center, 7 P.M., ESPN2) in one of the most highly anticipated games of the regular season between a pair of Final Four contenders.
With COVID-19 cutting schedules short, there have not been as many of the high-profile matchups that usually give us an idea of what to expect come March. In a season that has made the word “pause” synonymous with two-week-break-from-basketball, Monday’s top-five matchup between Louisville and N.C. State is a rare jewel on the 2020–2021 college basketball slate. It will also be a showcase between two of the nation’s grittiest Final Four favorites and will have big time implications for the ACC regular season race.
Two weeks ago, Louisville earned the No. 1 spot in the polls for the first time in program history, which should speak volumes to how good this year’s edition of Jeff Walz’s team is—not even teams led by Angel McCoughtry, Schoni Schimmel or Asia Durr ranked first in the country. Two weeks into its reign, the Cardinals face their biggest test of the season in the Wolfpack.
Both teams have All-American talent with guard Dana Evans of Louisville and center Elissa Cunane of N.C. State leading their teams onto the court. For all the well-deserved hype between the two stars, their teammates are way more than a supporting cast.
N.C. State’s backcourt will go toe to toe with Dana Evans and the Louisville guards, while both teams’ frontcourts will provide compelling matchups in the paint. Here’s a preview of the season’s first matchup between nationally ranked top-five teams.
ACC Regular Season Race
Louisville enters the game undefeated as the only remaining Division I Power Five women’s program. The Cardinals sit in first place in the ACC after surviving a few close calls in the last two weeks against Wake Forest and Miami. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack are coming off their first loss of the season to Virginia Tech. The Cards’ 9-0 record gives them a two-game advantage ahead of the Wolfpack, who are 6-1 in conference play and recently missed three weeks of the season due to COVID-19. If N.C. State doesn’t win Monday, the team would need help from other conference members to derail the Cardinals’ first-place standing in the league title race, as this is the only meeting between the two teams in the regular season.
Battle of the backcourt
Dana Evans, the senior guard from Gary, Indiana, is averaging an ACC-best 19.5 points per game. She has consistently scored any way she’s wanted and has come up clutch several times this month. The 5’6” playmaker has two talented guards alongside her in freshman standout Hailey Van Lith and California transfer Kianna Smith.
Van Lith may well be the future of ACC basketball. She knows how to score, shooting 44% from the field, and at only 5’7” she is averaging 5.8 rebounds, which is good for third-best on the team.
Smith is the team’s best three-point shooter, coming into the contest shooting 40% from beyond the arc. She has been known to get hot right from three and was a vital piece to Louisville’s historic 116-point performance against DePaul earlier this season.
The trio will go up against the most complete backcourt it has seen all season in Raina Perez, Kai Crutchfield and Jakia-Brown Turner.
Perez has been one of the most valuable newcomers to the league after transferring from Cal. State Fullerton. The 2020 Big West Player of the Year brings tremendous poise to Wes Moore’s offense. She leads the conference with the best assist-to-turnover ratio. Perez spear-headed N.C. State’s win over previous No. 1 South Carolina in December, scoring 11 points and dishing a team-best 4 assists against an elite South Carolina backcourt.
Kai Crutchfield’s length and speed may make it difficult for the Cardinal backcourt to operate as normal. While she isn’t typically the go-to scorer for the Wolfpack, Crutchfield knows how to put points on the scoreboard. Recently, she reeled off 8 straight points on her own to help her team comeback and win in their first meeting with Virginia Tech.
Jakia Brown-Turner was one of the best rookies in the league a season ago. An integral part of the program’s 2020 ACC Tournament Championship run, the sophomore guard’s 14.6 points per game ranks fifteenth in the league. At six-feet tall, Brown-Turner’s length will be an advantage over the smaller Louisville guards.
Louisville has one of the nation’s most physical backcourt duos in freshman Olivia Cochran and junior Elizabeth Dixon. The two lead the team in rebounding, amassing an average of 40.9 rebounds per game, sixth-best in the conference. Cochran is averaging 6.4 rebounds per game, which is seventeenth in the ACC while Dixon’s 5.9 boards per game is twenty-first.
The Louisville duo has faced several other opposing backcourts leading up to this game, and the results from those games show they are ready for the next test. The two weren’t phased by a much taller Syracuse team in a January 21 win. Just days ago, Cochran and Dixon limited preseason All-ACC selection Janelle Bailey to 11 points in a win against North Carolina.
As physical as Louisville’s bigs are, N.C. State’s are just as versatile. Cunane and forward Kayla Jones can score at all three levels. Cunane ranks among the top ten in ACC scoring and rebounding, and Jones was arguably the Wolfpack’s best player in its upset bid at South Carolina earlier this year. In that game, she scored 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. She is one of the team’s most passionate players and will give the Louisville defense problems whether they show man-to-man or zone.
Those who have followed both teams this season may be wondering why this preview has yet to mention two very important names from each team: Elizabeth Balogun of Louisville and Jada Boyd of N.C. State. Their play will be crucial to their team’s success Monday night.
Balogun is a lengthy, quick 6’1” guard who quietly fills up multiple columns of the box score. The 2019 ACC Freshman of the Year at Georgia Tech transferred to Jeff Walz’s program last year. This season she is averaging 6.7 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Although she averages just over 20 minutes per game, Baolgun compliments Evans and Van Lith very well. Her ability to handle the ball and apply good on-ball pressure will be evident on Monday.
Boyd might be one of the most versatile players in the country. At 6’2”, the sophomore forward compliments Kayla Jones extremely well by stretching out defenses. She is a matchup nightmare and brings physicality driving to the hoop. On offense, she has been good for 10.8 points per contest and her 6.1 rebounds per game is nineteenth in the conference. Her ability to rebound will be key for N.C. State in limiting the amount of possessions for Dana Evans’ offense.
Both teams are one and two across several ACC categories, including scoring and field goal percentage. After N.C. State defeated the Cardinals in February 2017, Louisville has dominated the series, winning the last six games. If history is any indicator of what’s to come Monday, it should be another close game—eight of the last nine matchups have been decided by 10 points or less, including Louisville’s 66–59 win over the Wolfpack a season ago.
Women’s college basketball finally has a top-five matchup in the 2020–2021 season. Between the ACC regular season title race, the overwhelming talent across both teams and its potential to be a precursor to a Final Four meeting, this game is one you won’t want to miss.
Tip-off is set for Monday, February 1, at 7 P.M. The game will air live on ESPN2.