GREENSBORO, N.C. – North Carolina State’s players knew the high expectations that awaited even before they had played a minute this season, how nothing short of championships would be acceptable for a veteran team back for a final run together.
So they ended their stay at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament the same way as the past two seasons: frolicking among balloons and confetti that had fallen from the rafters before cutting down climbing steps to snip down the nets.
The top-seeded Wolfpack won a third straight championship Sunday by ending Miami's upset-filled run in a 60-47 victory, with the preseason favorite completing a dominating run against league opponents this season.
It came from a deep team that returned its top eight scorers from last year, as well as adding talented newcomers, which meant fewer minutes to go around even for top players like Elissa Cunane, Kayla Jones and Jakia Brown-Turner. Stats went down, but wins went up to tie a program single-season record.
“They’ve all sacrificed a little bit,” coach Wes Moore told the crowd afterward. “But hey, it’s worth it.”
N.C. State (29-3) finished 20-1 against ACC foes this year.
“I think that in a lot of ways it's more challenging trying to make sure we didn't read the press clippings and maybe let up and relax,” Moore told reporters, adding that there was a midseason stretch when his veteran players seemed “kind of over me.”
“We get tired of each other sometimes,” said Cunane, the tournament's most valuable player for the second straight year. “I'll be honest, I get sick of seeing some people's faces. But I love everyone on the team with all my heart."
Cunane had 17 points and eight rebounds despite exiting the game for a second-half stretch with an apparent left-ankle injury. Raina Perez added 12 points and Diamond Johnson had 11.
N.C. State shot just 35% but took control with a 17-4 run, increasing an eight-point margin to 54-33 on consecutive 3-pointers by Johnson to end the third quarter and start the fourth. And N.C. State never let Miami repeat its comeback magic from the quarterfinals against No. 4 Louisville.
The seventh-seeded Hurricanes (20-12) were trying to become the lowest-seeded team ever to win the ACC Tournament or to win four games in four days for a title, a run that had already included the wild rally from 15 down in the final 5:44 to beat the Cardinals and a semifinal win against No. 20 Notre Dame.
But the Hurricanes shot just 32% and 3 for 19 from 3-point range. That included a 7-minute scoreless drought in the third quarter as the Wolfpack began to pull away.
Kelsey Marshall scored 24 points for Miami, but no other player hit double figures.
“I don’t know you can defend that team any better than we did,” Miami coach Katie Meier said. "We held them to 60. If you told me we were going to have more points in the paint against them and they were only going to hit five 3s and that we were also going to out-rebound them, I would think that we were out on the court right now with confetti on our heads.
“I just don’t know that you can ask more from a team and be gutsier or whatever than we were.”
Miami: Meier’s Hurricanes have almost certainly taken care of any bubble drama when it comes to the NCAA Tournament. They have won eight of 10, with the highlight here being the rally to beat Louisville led by Destiny Harden -- who hit the last-second shot to cap her run of scoring the game’s final 15 points -- followed by the semifinal win against the Irish to earn the program’s first title-game trip.
“We came in as underdogs and we showed people that we're not the underdogs no more," Marshall said, "and we're going to keep rolling in the NCAA Tournament.”
N.C. State: The Wolfpack hadn’t won an ACC Tournament title since 1991 before this three-year reign. Moore’s club paired that with the program clinching its first ACC regular-season championship since 1990, the latest milestones for a veteran team with aspirations of making a deep NCAA run, too.
THE FINAL SCENE
As the final seconds ticked away, Cunane — who had grimaced her way through the final 6:56 of the game — finally broke into a smile as she crossed midcourt with the Wolfpack running out the clock, then hugged teammate Jada Boyd.
A few feet away, Perez — who hit the game-winning shot in last year’s title game against Louisville — held up three fingers on each hand to the crowd, then jumped into Cunane’s arms for a hug at the horn.
N.C. State's Jones had a game-high 10 rebounds. ... Wolfpack reserve Camille Hobby had eight points with some quality minutes while was Cunane sidelined. ... Harden scored six points on 3-for-6 shooting for Miami. ... Outside of Marshall, the Hurricanes made 8 of 35 shots (.229). ... The Wolfpack joined Maryland (1981-83), Duke (2000-04), North Carolina (2005-08) and Notre Dame (2014-17) as teams to win three straight ACC titles.
Both teams await their postseason destination, with a second straight No. 1 seed awaiting the Wolfpack in the NCAAs.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap
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