Perez’s late basket lifts NC State to 66-63 win over Irish

  • North Carolina State guard Raina Perez goes to the basket to put her team up by one point late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Sweet 16 game against Notre Dame. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Raina Perez decided to come back for one more season and hopefully lift N.C. State to new heights. The senior guard did just that, helping the Wolfpack advance to their first regional final in 24 years.

The senior guard stole the ball at midcourt and made a go-ahead layup with 14 seconds left to send the top-seeded Wolfpack to a 66-63 comeback win over No. 5 Notre Dame on Saturday.

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It’s the Wolfpack’s first trip to the Elite Eight since 1998 when they reached the Final Four.

N.C. State had lost in the Sweet 16 the previous three tournaments and looked as if it was going to make it four straight until the late rally led by Perez and Kai Crutchfield, who also came back for the extra COVID year granted by the NCAA.

“For this group it would have been hard for me to face the fact they all came back and we still didn’t get over the hump,” N.C. State coach Wes Moore said. “That makes me feel really good and I’m so excited for our program to do this, kind of break through. It took a while four years of the Sweet 16 to get through that wall.”

It wasn’t the first time that Perez came up huge for the Wolfpack on a big stage. She hit the game-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 this and knew I could do it,” Perez said of the free throws. “I’m just so happy I knocked them down.”

The Wolfpack had gotten within 63-62 when Elissa Cunane made the first of two free throws with 36 seconds left. After a Notre Dame timeout, the Irish got the ball inbounds in the backcourt and Dara Mabrey was stripped near midcourt by Perez, who took it in for the layup and the lead. It was there first since the 7:43 mark of the second quarter.

N.C. State (32-3) advanced to the regional final Monday night where it will face second-seeded UConn.

Cunane scored 16 points and Crutchfield added 14 for the Wolfpack, who avenged an earlier loss to the Irish on Feb. 1. That was N.C. State’s most recent loss of the season and only defeat in conference play.

“It’s a hump we had to get over and the girls are determined and I’m determined and we made it happen.” said Crutchfield of reaching the regional final.

Olivia Miles scored 21 points and Westbeld added 13 for the Irish (24-9).

“No one thought that we’d do this coming from a team that did not make the tournament last year and fought through a lot of adversity with COVID and injuries and players,” Miles said. “It’s just incredible to see what we’ve done, and I’m sure we’re going to remember this feeling like we remembered the feeling last year and come back and go even farther.”

Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey has the Irish back among the nation’s elite women’s basketball teams in her second season as head coach. The Irish missed the NCAAs last year for the first time since 1995.

“I wanted to stress that to them that I don’t want them to feel this is the end of the world,” Ivey said. “We have a bright future, starting two freshmen and a sophomore.”

The Wolfpack got off to a decent start and led 16-12 after one quarter before the Irish got going behind their freshman Miles. She and fellow first-year player Sonia Citron scored seven straight for the Irish to open up a 36-26 lead. The Wolfpack trailed 38-30 at the half. The lead stayed around eight for most of the third quarter before the rally by N.C. State.

“The whole game we didn’t want to happen what did last year,” Cunane said. ‘We’re playing right now like the upset we had last year. We weren’t playing with enough toughness. We wanted to come out here and go past the Sweet 16 and here we are. We had to work hard for it but we are here.”

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Irish are a very young squad and are headed back to being one of the top teams in the country.

N.C. State: The Wolfpack struggled most of the game, but found a way to win in the end and reach the Elite Eight with a senior-led squad.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Notre Dame: The Irish topped UMass in the first round before routing fourth-seed Oklahoma 108-64 in the second.

N.C. State: The Wolfpack routed both Longwood and Kansas State to advance to the Sweet 16.

MOTHERLY LOVE

It was a rough 24 hours for the Ivey family on the court. Niele Ivey made the 2.5-hour trip down from Connecticut to Philadelphia to watch her son Jaden play in the men’s Sweet 16 with Purdue. The Boilermakers lost to No. 15 seed Saint Peter’s. She went to the team hotel and gave her son a hug before returning to Connecticut around 2 a.m.

“It’s been a tough 24 hours,” the Notre Dame coach said after Saturday’s loss.

UCONN 75, INDIANA 58

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — Paige Bueckers and Christyn Williams each scored 15 points to lead a balanced UConn offense in a 75-58 win over Indiana on Saturday to advance the Huskies into their 16th consecutive women’s NCAA Tournament regional final.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa had a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds for Connecticut (28-5), which outscored the Hoosiers 46-32 in the paint.

Azzi Fudd added 13 points for the Huskies, who face top-seeded North Carolina State on Monday night in an attempt to earn a 14th straight trip to the Final Four.

Ali Patberg, in her seventh year of college basketball thanks to transfer and COVID-19 rules, had 16 points for the third-seeded Hoosiers, who finish their season at 24-9. Grace Berger had 13 points and Mackenzie Holmes added 12 for Indiana.

UConn led 37-33 at the half, but opened the second half with a 16-0 run to take control of the game.

LOUISVILLE 76, TENNESSEE 64

WICHITA, Kan. — Hailey Van Lith had 23 points and six assists, Emily Engstler had 20 points and 10 rebounds, and No. 1 seed Louisville held off Tennessee to reach the Elite Eight for the fourth consecutive time.

Kianna Smith also had 12 points for the Cardinals (28-4), who blew most of an early 15-point lead before pulling away late in the fourth quarter to set up a date with No. 3 seed Michigan for a spot in the Final Four.

The Cardinals have become one of the nation’s dominant women’s programs under coach Jeff Walz — much like the Lady Vols were for so many years under Pat Summitt — but are still chasing their first national championship.

Rae Burrell led fourth-seeded Tennessee (25-9) with 22 points, but she didn’t get a whole lot of help from her team, which had 18 turnovers. Jordan Walker contributed 10 points but had five of the turnovers.

MICHIGAN 52, SOUTH DAKOTA 49

WICHITA, Kan. — Naz Hillmon had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Laila Phelia scored the go-ahead layup in the final minute for No. 3 Michigan, which beat No. 10 seed South Dakota to reach the Elite Eight for the first time.

Phelia scored 14 points and Leigha Brown added 10 for the Wolverines (25-6).

South Dakota (29-6) was trying to become just the fifth double-digit seed to reach the Elite Eight, but fell short. Hannah Sjerven had 17 points and eight rebounds before fouling out, while Chloe Lamb, the Summit League Player of the Year who averaged 16 points per game, was held to just six points.

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