Resilient NC State secures elusive Women's Final Four berth

Apr. 3—In 2022, North Carolina State went to double overtime in a regional final seeking its first Women's Final Four berth since 1998 ... and lost.

So when this edition of the Wolfpack broke that drought dating to the days of legendary coach Kay Yow, Wes Moore couldn't help but look back at that close call and the program's lineage.

"I thought of those players, how much I love them, how great they were," Moore said April 2 during a Zoom media call. "I just hate they missed out on this opportunity.

"I thought about Kay Yow, 34 years at NC State. I was fortunate to be with her (as an assistant) from '93 to '95. She took this program to a Final Four in '98. To be able to do that, as well.

"Yeah, it's very humbling. The text messages you receive from all these great coaches and friends and people you care about, it's very humbling and at the same time very exciting."

But he also knew a tall order was on the horizon, as NC State heads to Cleveland this weekend for the Women's Final Four: A showdown with 36-0 South Carolina in a national semifinal at 7 p.m. April 5.

"Yeah, started watching film actually on the plane ride home," Moore said. "Clipped one of South Carolina's games. I think this is the best team — and they've had some unbelievable teams. I think this is the best team they've ever had simply because I think they've got so many people that can score the ball.

"It's a great challenge. Dawn Staley has been here many times — unbelievable coach. Like I said, we're excited about playing again. Wouldn't trade it for anything. So here we go."

In Northeast Ohio looking for hardware alongside Caitlin Clark, Paige Bueckers and an unbeaten South Carolina, the Wolfpack might not be garnering the praise befitting a regional champion any other year.

But NC State (31-6) has shown its fortitude in returning to the big stage for the first time in 26 years.

The Wolfpack are paced by junior guards Aziaha James and Saniya Rivers. James averaged 16.7 points and had 27 in a dynamic regional final performance against top-seeded Texas. Rivers averages 12.7 points and is tied for team lead in assists on a squad featuring three players with more than 100 assists on the season.

"I've seen them both grow up as players, as people," Moore said of James and Rivers. "I think both of them at times, if things didn't go well, they would be hard on themselves, blame themselves, whatever, get down.

"I think now maybe just knowing that we're really counting on them, they're going to be able to play through mistakes. They know we're going to lean on them. I think that's given them confidence."

There's balance in the starting five beyond James and Rivers as well through Maryland transfer Mimi Collins (10.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Florida State transfer River Baldwin (10.6 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and Madison Hayes (10.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg).

That kind of rebounding might make NC State one of the few teams in the country that can crash the glass with a team like South Carolina with its skill and size, led in the paint by 6-foot-7 center Kamilla Cardoso. Baldwin is 6-5 and Collins is 6-3.

"I think it's just an honor to be part of a legacy that is NC State women's basketball," Baldwin said after defeating Texas. "I didn't start here, but I feel like I've been here my whole career. I really found a home here.

"So to be a part of the first Final Four for Coach Moore, I thank him for taking a chance on me and taking me into this program. I've loved every second of it."

The Wolfpack did have three losses in February but have gone 7-1 since en route to the Final Four as a No. 3 seed.

"Hey, we're coming to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, you got to crash the party, right?" Moore said with a smile.

"Again, I look at that gauntlet — Tennessee, Stanford, Texas — that's some pretty strong programs with a lot of history."

Now, NC State hopes to make some more of that history, throwing prognostications for a loop when it takes on South Carolina.

Two years ago, they were so close to the big stage. Now that they're here, they want to embrace it as long as they can.

"I noticed I guess at least the last two games, we've been given like a 20-something percent chance of winning," Moore said. "I think for this game, we don't have any percent chance, but I know it's going to be pretty low again.

"Again, they're playing and having fun. We're not worried about it. Like I said, I think this is your goal, to get to the Final Four. But now you got to excel and say, 'OK, now our goal is to try to go get two more.'"