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NCAA Kentucky NC State Basketball

North Carolina State's Elissa Cunane, a 6-foot-5 freshman, battles for a ball against Kentucky's Tatyana Wyatt during the first half of the 10th-ranked Wolfpack's second-round win Monday. The Wolfpack face the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Sweet 16 Saturday.

Everything starts on the defensive end of the court for Iowa’s next opponent in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

North Carolina State has played its way into the Sweet 16 for the second straight year by playing stingy defense and dominating the defensive boards while overcoming a multitude of injuries.

As they work toward Saturday’s 10:30 a.m. game against the eighth-ranked Hawkeyes in Greensboro, N.C., the 10th-ranked Wolfpack rank 13th in the country in rebound margin and 21st nationally in limiting opponents to 36-percent shooting from the field.

“One way to slow teams down is to get stops and a big part of that is making sure they only get one shot a possession,’’ North Carolina State coach Wes Moore said following his 28-5 team’s 72-57 second-round win over Kentucky on Monday.

The Wolfpack gave up just one offensive rebound in the second half of the second-round game, complementing a defensive effort which limited Kentucky to season-low 31.9 percent shooting.

Defense has become a necessary staple for a team which has held 25 opponents below 40 percent from the field, helping North Carolina State open the season with a nation-best 21-game win streak which extended into February.

Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw praised the Wolfpack’s defense prior to a game last month.

“They’re smart, they play great position defense and their rotation is really good,’’ McGraw said at a press conference. “They’re just a team that really enjoys playing defense and it shows.’’

Moore said that has helped his team overcome more than its share of adversity.

The Wolfpack have played the entire season without their returning starting point guard, Kaila Ealey, after she suffered a preseason anterior cruciate ligament tear.

Grace Hunter, a guard averaging 14.6 points, saw her season end with the same injury in early January and a torn ACL ended the season for starting forward Erika Cassell in February while she was averaging 6.6 points per game.

Reserve Armani Hawkins, averaging 4.2 points, also saw her season end with an ACL tear in January.

The injury situation has impacted the Wolfpack’s depth but has done little to limit the team’s success or its approach to the game.

“They just amaze me,’’ Moore said following Monday’s win over the Wildcats.

Against Kentucky, three North Carolina State players recorded double-doubles.

Senior guard Kiara Leslie led that effort with 26 points and 10 rebounds, while 6-foot-5 freshman Elissa Cunane finished with 13 points and 15 rebounds while and senior forward DD Rogers collected 11 points and 11 boards.

“Our two seniors really set the tone with some toughness and the freshman isn’t too bad either,’’ Moore said. “I’m proud of the way this team continues to compete. We’re dancing with the ones who brung us.’’

Moore expects Iowa to test the Wolfpack with some zone looks as well as some triangle and two, blending that with man-to-man looks in a rotation which has prevented Hawkeye opponents from getting comfortable offensively.

North Carolina State does have some long-range shooting ability. Leslie, Kai Crutchfield and Aislinn Konig combined on 9-of-19 shooting from 3-point range against Kentucky.

“Iowa will play some triangle and two and hopefully we’ll be able to make a few plays if they leave us open,’’ Moore said.

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