Corrected at 9:32 AM on March 23. See details in story.
Familiarity is one key to success during the road to the Final Four.
For N.C. State, familiarity means the Wolfpack gets to host a game at Reynolds Coliseum. Since N.C. State is playing at home, the players also get to sleep in their own beds, eat at their favorite restaurants and change in their own locker room.
That’s not unusual. But even their opponent is a familiar one, and that is unusual.
The No. 3-seeded Wolfpack (26-5) will host No. 14-seeded Maine (25-7) at 1 p.m. on Saturday. This time of year it’s rare that two teams that have played before meet in the opening round.
On Dec. 15 the Black Bears came to Raleigh and were thumped by N.C. State 84-46. It was the Wolfpack’s largest margin of victory this season. N.C. State was on fire that night, prompting head coach Wes Moore to call it a “perfect storm.”
The Wolfpack led 50-17 at halftime and shot 68.9 percent from the field and 63.6 from three in the opening 20 minutes.
“I think through three quarters we were on pace to set a new school record for field goal percentages,” Moore said. “I think it was in the 70’s and they didn’t have one of their better games.”
The Black Bears were also without one of their better players, junior forward Fanny Wadling. Moore prepared his team as if Wadling was going to play. Wadling is back and Maine has been on a roll. The Black Bears head to Raleigh on a 14-game win streak.
Between the two rosters, the biggest difference is on N.C. State’s side. The Wolfpack will be without four players who scored a combined 27 points in that victory on Dec. 15.
“They’ve proven they can compete at this level,” Moore said. “I know we are going to have a big challenge on our hands. Hopefully our players understand that.”
The Black Bears went 1-2 against the ACC this season, falling to Duke by three and beating North Carolina 85-73.
This story has been corrected to show that Maine defeated UNC on Dec. 2. An incorrect final result was given in earlier version of the story.
“I know they are a lot better than that and I know that we can’t count on shooting 70 something percent,” Moore said. “They come in with a lot of momentum, a lot of confidence.”
One of the biggest differences Maine coach Amy Vachon and her team will have to prepare for is N.C. State freshman center Elissa Cunane, who played 23 minutes and scored 11 points in the first meeting, but emerged as a star in the post as the Wolfpack dealt with season-ending injuries during the year.
Cunane started the last eight games of the season, averaging 17.6 points per game and making the all-tournament team at the ACC tournament in Greensboro.
“They are looking to go into Cunane a lot,” Vachon said. “I don’t blame them. She was playing a little bit the first time we played them but not as much as she’s playing now. That’s the biggest difference.”
Both coaches didn’t have to do too much digging when it came to scouting their first opponent. It helps the host Wolfpack a ton, but Moore said that works both ways.
“We have film on them, we have a scouting report we can update and clean up a little bit,” Moore said. “So it does make it a little bit easier, but at the same time probably made it easier for them too so probably on equal ground.”
In this case, the familiarity cuts both ways.
“We have the same locker room, we’ve been in the building, we’ve shot here,” Vachon said. “We’ve played this team, we know how good they can be. We’re excited. We know it’s going to be a challenge and we are ready for it.”