RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Erika Cassell made the most of every opportunity in her last regular-season home game.
That opportunity began with a spot in the starting lineup on Senior Night, and she went on to post a season-high 12 points and a season-best tying nine rebounds as No. 8-ranked North Carolina State beat Syracuse 69-60 Thursday night.
N.C. State (24-4, 13-4 ACC) clinched the No. 2 seed for the ACC Tournament as its seniors delivered some of their best moments of the season. Aislinn Konig broke out of a 2 of 20 slump from 3-point range to make three 3-pointers and record a team-high 13 points and five assists.
Grace Hunter scored 10 points in a season-high 31 minutes. Kaila Ealey played a season-high 30 minutes, led the team with two steals and delivered some ballhandling against Syracuse’s full-court press. It all added up to a satisfying finish for a group of seniors whose 48 ACC wins are the most for any senior class in school history.
“We take a lot of pride in the fact that we’re able to be here and build this back into a Top-10 team,” Konig said.
Syracuse (15-13, 9-8) entered the game having won five of its last six, but couldn’t match the Wolfpack’s determination and grit. The Orange got 20 points from Kiara Lewis and 10 from Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi, but was outrebounded 46-29.
Nonetheless, Syracuse trailed just 42-40 in the third minute of the third quarter before Konig drove for a left-handed layup and passed to Kayla Jones for a 3-pointer. By the end of the third quarter, the lead was 61-48 and N.C. State was well on its way to a win.
With a home game against Boston College and the ACC Tournament remaining, Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman remains hopeful that his team will be able to secure an NCAA Tournament bid.
“Obviously we’ve got a chance to go win at home on Sunday, and you go to the (ACC) Tournament and win the tournament, you’ve got a different conversation,” Hillsman said. “You get the automatic bid. We’ve got a lot of basketball left.”
Cassell’s college basketball days will come to an end after this season, and the last few weeks have been rough on her as well as the N.C. State team. A one-time starter who suffered a torn knee ligament last season, Cassell hadn’t played in the last three games before Thursday.
But she and her fellow seniors played well at the start against Syracuse, and coach Wes Moore kept them in the game.
“Tonight I got a lot of opportunities and I just maximized everything I could do,” Cassell said. “If that’s getting a rebound, getting a steal, getting a shot up. Whatever I could do for the team, I was willing to. I know that I haven’t been receiving as many minutes, but I just wanted to maximize the time I was given, and it was extra special because it was on senior night.”
With leading scorer Elissa Cunane limited to eight points in 11 minutes because of foul trouble, Cassell’s contributions were essential. Junior Kayla Jones contributed 12 points and 14 rebounds as N.C. State bounced back after losing three of its last four games.
“I always say, ‘If you’re playing well, I’ll leave it alone,’ ” Moore said. “I hadn’t planned on them playing maybe as many minutes as some of them did. But they were playing well, and we rode with it, and we needed that. We needed a win.”
N.C. State made eight 3-pointers after making six or fewer in its previous five games. Prior to that, the Wolfpack had made at least 10 3-pointers in four straight games.
Syracuse shot just 35.8% from the field. … Lewis had a team-high four assists to go with her 20 points. … Kai Crutchfield and Jakia Brown-Turner, who ordinarily are in the starting lineup for N.C. State, played a combined 16 minutes as the seniors stepped into a more prominent role in their last regular-season home game.
Syracuse: This was a great chance for the Orange to add to their NCAA Tournament resume against a Wolfpack team that was reeling. But giving up 25 points in the first quarter against an N.C. State starting lineup that was unusual because of senior night put Syracuse on its heels early as the opportunity slipped away.
N.C. State: Any win would have been a welcome accomplishment for the Wolfpack after falling three times in the previous four games. Winning when Cunane played just 11 minutes made the feat even more impressive.
Syracuse: Plays host to Boston College on Sunday.
N.C. State: Visits Virginia on Sunday.
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