BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — Raina Perez has decided to return for one more season and hopefully elevate NC State to new heights. That’s exactly what the senior guard did, helping the Wolfpack advance to their first regional final in 24 years.
The senior guard stole the ball at midfield and fired the go-ahead with 14 seconds left to send the top-seeded Wolfpack to a 66-63 comeback win over No.5 Notre Dame on Saturday.
It’s the Wolfpack’s first trip to the Elite Eight since 1998, when they reached the Final Four.
NC State had lost in the Sweet 16 all three previous tournaments and looked set to make it four in a row until the latest rally led by Perez and Kai Crutchfield, who also returned for the NCAA-granted extra COVID year.
“For this group, it would have been difficult for me to face the fact that they all came back and we still haven’t gotten over the hump,” NC State coach Wes Moore said. “It feels really good to me and I’m so excited for our program to do this, kind of a breakthrough. It took the Sweet 16 four years to break through that wall.
It wasn’t the first time Perez had gone huge for the Wolfpack on a big stage. She hit the winning jumper to lift them to the ACC Tournament Championship last season.
Trailing 59-51 early in the fourth quarter, the Wolfpack rallied, scoring 15 of the final 19 points capped by Perez’s layup. The Irish had one last chance, but Maddy Westbeld missed a 3-pointer from the wing and Perez hit both free throws for the final margin.
“We practice that and knew I could do it,” Perez said of the free throws. I’m so glad I knocked them down.
The Wolfpack had reached 63-62 when Elissa Cunane made the first of two free throws with 36 seconds left. After a Notre Dame timeout, the Irish won the ball in the backcourt and Dara Mabrey was stripped near midfield by Perez, who took it for the lay-up and header.
NC State (32-3) advanced to the regional final on Monday night where it will face either second-seeded UConn or No. 3 Indiana.
Cunane scored 16 points and Crutchfield added 14 for the Wolfpack, who avenged an earlier loss to the Irish on February 1. It was NC State’s most recent loss of the season and only conference loss.
“It’s a bump we had to get over and the girls are determined and I’m determined and we did it.” declared Crutchfield to have reached the regional final.
Olivia Miles scored 21 points and Westbeld added 13 for the Irish (24-9).
“No one thought we would do this coming from a team that didn’t make the tournament last year and went through a lot of adversity with COVID, injuries and players,” Miles said. “It’s just amazing to see what we’ve done, and I’m sure we’ll remember that feeling like we remembered it last year and come back and go even further.”
Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey has brought the Irish back to the country’s elite women’s basketball teams for his second season as head coach. The Irish missed the NCAA last year for the first time since 1995.
“I wanted to tell them that I don’t want them to feel like it’s the end of the world,” Ivey said. “We have a bright future, starting two freshmen and one sophomore.”
The Wolfpack got off to a good start and were leading 16-12 after one quarter before the Irish got behind rookie Miles. She and fellow freshman Sonia Citron scored seven straight for the Irish to open a 36-26 lead. The Wolfpack trailed 38-30 at halftime. The lead remained around eight for most of the third quarter before NC State’s rally.
“The whole game we didn’t want to happen what happened last year,” Cunane said. “We are playing right now like the surprise we had last year. We didn’t play hard enough. We wanted to come here and walk past the Sweet 16 and here we are. We had to work hard for it, but here we are.
Notre Dame: The Irish are a very young team and are once again becoming one of the best teams in the country.
NC State: The Wolfpack struggled for most of the game, but eventually found a way to win and reach the Elite Eight with a senior-led team.
HOW THEY ARRIVED
Notre Dame: The Irish dominated UMass in the first round before routing fourth-seeded Oklahoma 108-64 in the second.
NC State: The Wolfpack routed Longwood and Kansas State to move to the Sweet 16.
It was a tough 24 hours for the Ivey family on the court. Niele Ivey made the two-and-a-half-hour trip from Connecticut to Philadelphia to watch his son Jaden play in the men’s Sweet 16 with Purdue. The Boilermakers lost to 15th seed Saint Peter’s. She went to the team hotel and gave her son a hug before heading back to Connecticut around 2 a.m.
“The 24 hours were tough,” the Notre Dame coach said after Saturday’s loss.
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