Bring up UConn vs. NC State in women’s basketball, and most fans will reference the 2022 Elite Eight game that went into double overtime. The stakes might not be as high in the second battle since that 50-minute thriller in Bridgeport, Connecticut, but the No. 2 UConn women’s basketball team still faces their first major nonconference challenge of the regular season in Raleigh, North Carolina against the NC State Wolfpack on Saturday.
When the two programs met in a Top 10 matchup last season, the Huskies opened the contest on a 9-0 run and never fell behind in a 91-69 rout at the XL Center. UConn leads the all-time series 8-2 and has won the last six meetings dating back to 2001. NC State finished 20-12 overall in 2022-23 with a 9-9 record in Atlantic Coast Conference play. Their first-round defeat at the hands of former Husky Carla Berube and the 10th-seeded Princeton Tigers marked the first time since 2017 that head coach Wes Moore’s team did not reach the second weekend of March Madness.
If the Wolfpack’s early exit did not sting in the moment, then the offseason did no favors in healing the bitter wound. NC State’s top four scorers, including All-ACC Second Team selection Diamond Johnson (12.3 PPG, 4.2 RPG in 2022-23) and Jada Boyd (9.2 PPG, 4.6 RPG), departed during the offseason. Despite adding just two transfers, most of the primary responsibilities fall to ACC Most Improved Player Saniya Rivers and senior guard Madison Hayes. Both veteran guards stepped up to the challenge on both ends of the floor against the Charlotte 49ers on Tuesday, with Hayes finishing two rebounds shy of a double-double while rejecting two shots.
The Wolfpack addressed their star departures by adding two players from the transfer portal. Western Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year Lizzy Williamson served as one of the centerpieces in earning the Southern Utah Thunderbirds their first March Madness appearance last season behind her 2.3 blocks and 10 rebounds per game. Junior forward Katie Peneueta, who did not play in the season opener, brings an advanced skillset from Sacramento State after averaging 8.4 points, 5.8 boards and 1.4 blocks as a sophomore.
Moore filled the rest of the spots with a six-person freshman class featuring five-star prospect Zoe Brooks. Ranked as the No. 9 recruit in the Class of 2023, Brooks averaged 22.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 steals as a senior at St. John Vianney High School. The New Jersey native made the most of her collegiate debut at the William Neal Reynolds Coliseum, scoring 12 points and bringing in three rebounds in 28:50.
Only junior guard Aziaha James had more points in NC State’s season opener at 26 as she shot 5-8 from beyond the arc. Starting the Wolfpack’s final six games last season, expect a breakout campaign from James that could result in ACC Most Improved Player honors. The same can be said for second-year graduate forward Mimi Collins, who quietly shot 3-6 from beyond the arc for 11 points in 20 minutes.
Head coach Geno Auriemma highlighted physical guard play in his postgame press conference after the Huskies season opener when asked about NC State. KK Arnold, who forced four steals and recorded seven assists in her collegiate debut, can be one of those physical enforcers. Opposing guards might not be able to recognize what hit them until the Wisconsin native gets in the paint, something the Dayton Flyers learned the hard way on Wednesday.
Paige Bueckers, who dove after a loose ball multiple times in her first contest since the 2022 national championship game, could also be one of those aggressive Husky guards on both ends of the floor. The redshirt junior recorded an eight-point, seven-rebound performance in the season opener, but she also made her presence known on the court through her transition game. Connecticut excelled in that regard as a team with 23 assists and 11 steals among all 11 players who suited up for the season opener, but that could change given the increase in the opponent’s difficulty between the first and second games.
With the style of play the Wolfpack prefers, senior guard Nika Mühl could see significant minutes down the stretch on top of her abilities as a floor commander. Mühl was one of six Huskies who crossed double figures on Wednesday, but her five assists and three steals went unnoticed because of what other guards did on the floor. Playing only 16 minutes, Qadence Samuels left fans impressed with three triples and 11 points while Azzi Fudd made the exact same number of treys with 13 points on top of her three assists.
Auriemma also mentioned consistency from senior forward Aaliyah Edwards, who finished with 23 points and nine boards when outlining the season in that postgame press conference. Edwards does not have to do it alone, however, as she will get support on the frontcourt from graduate student Aubrey Griffin and redshirt freshman Ice Brady. UConn’s frontcourt depth will be the biggest question mark early on, both in Sunday’s game and the remainder of the nonconference slate, and how forwards such as Brady acclimate to collegiate basketball will be an indicator of the team’s goals for the season.
Because of how physical both teams can be, the key matchup to look out for will be around the glass. The Huskies hold the edge on the boards with 22 second-chance points created from 59 rebounds; NC State has the advantage with 10 blocks. Whichever team collects more rebounds, whether they are offensive or defensive, and blocks more shots has a greater chance of earning a statement win. After both programs scored 80-plus points in their respective season openers, expect neither team to cross the 70-point mark in a defensive-minded duel.
Tip-off in Connecticut’s first nationally televised game of the year is at 3 p.m. EST Sunday on ABC.