BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — No one on North Carolina State’s roster was born the last time the Wolfpack reached their last Final Four 24 years ago.
The top-seeded Wolfpack will try to end that drought and stop UConn’s record streak of 13 straight trips to the national semifinals when the two teams play Monday night in the Bridgeport Region final (7:00 p.m. on ESPN, full Women’s March Madness schedule here).
Raina Perez was the closest to being alive back in 1998 — being born a few months after that run by legendary N.C State coach Kay Yow’s team.
“It’s huge for this program and it will take a lot of hard work and grit, especially since it’s UConn,” Perez said of reaching the Final Four. “They are always a good team and we will have to fight real hard and we can get there.”
The graduate guard is a big reason that the Wolfpack are still playing. Perez had a steal at midcourt and go-ahead layup with 14 seconds left as the Wolfpack (32-3) advanced to the Elite Eight on Saturday after rallying past Notre Dame.
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It could be a tall task for Wes Moore’s team, which is playing a game in the Huskies’ backyard in front of an expected sellout crowd that will be pulling hard for UConn.
“I think tomorrow is a home game for them. No question about it,” N.C. State center Elissa Cunane said. “We’ve gone to South Carolina and beaten them at their home, Louisville at their home. We’ve beaten great teams on their home court and we’re capable of doing it tomorrow.”
The last time N.C. State got this far was in 1998 when it played UConn in the regional final and beat the Huskies to reach the school’s lone Final Four.
UConn had a little easier time with Indiana, using a 16-0 run to start the third quarter to pull away from the Hoosiers. The Huskies have been on a historic run over the past 13 years, reaching the national semifinals every season and winning six NCAA titles during that span. — the last coming in 2016 to end a streak of four consecutive ones.
“Your program can only get you so far,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “This is the end of the road unless someone steps up and plays spectacularly well. Who that is I don’t know. We haven’t had our team together except for the last four weeks. It could be anyone at this point.”
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The Huskies (28-5) have had one of their most challenging seasons in recent memory due to injuries and COVID-19 issues. UConn had its most losses since 2012, including the Huskies’ first conference defeat in nine years as well as their first loss to an unranked team since 2012.
Things have been looking up for UConn since the team started getting healthy, including the return of Paige Bueckers from a knee injury that sidelined her for over two months. While she hasn’t been playing at the same level she did as a freshman last year when she won the AP Player of the Year award, she’s been working her way back.
She played 33 minutes in the Sweet 16 win.
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“It’s been a little bit of finding ourselves again, how much do we want to cheer for Paige and how much do we need to just play basketball and make shots and let her figure her own way out out there,” Auriemma said. “Today she took a more assertive role, which I like for her to do.”
This is the first head-to-head meeting between the schools since the 2006-07 season although they are scheduled to play next two seasons.
“I agreed to a series with UConn starting next year,” Moore said. “Coming back here next year, then they’ll come to us the following year.”