NC State has become one of the top women’s basketball programs in Division I, winning at least 20 games in all but one season dating back to 2013 and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in each of the past three NCAA Division I Tournaments. The Wolfpack have been better than ever in 2021-22, currently weighing in with a 20-3 overall record (11-1 in the ACC) and a No. 3 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25.
Sustained success depends heavily upon roster continuity, of course, and Wolfpack center Elissa Cunane, now in her senior season, has been the fulcrum of NC State’s recent surge. The 6’5 Cunane is a talented low-post scorer who has been honored regularly — both in the ACC and nationally — since her freshman season at NC State, and this season she’s leading the Wolfpack to what may be their most successful campaign since the days of the late Kay Yow.
Only time will tell how far this iteration of the Wolfpack goes in this year’s NCAA Division I Tournament, but Cunane’s future as a WNBA draftee has seemed certain for years. She has played at a consistently high level for an NC State program that has become one of the nation’s best during her collegiate career. Let’s look at just how valuable Cunane is to the Wolfpack and which of her skills may translate to the pros.
Honors and statistics
Cunane took little time to adjust to collegiate basketball, getting named to the All-ACC Freshman Team after appearing in 34 games (11 starts) and averaging 13.6 points and 6.3 rebounds. She’s been remarkably consistent since then, averaging 16.4 and 16.3 points as a sophomore and junior, respectively, while racking up plenty of awards. Cunane was named to the All-ACC First Team in both seasons and received varying All-American honors from ESPN, the Associated Press and the USWBA.
Prior to her senior season, Cunane was named the Preseason ACC Player of the Year. She was also named to the 2022 Lisa Leslie Award watch list, given to the top center in the nation, and is on watch lists for the Naismith Trophy, Wade Trophy and Wooden Award, each given to the national Player of the Year.
Internationally, Cunane competed in trials for Team USA in the FIBA U19 World Cup, and participated in the 2019 USA Basketball 3x3 event in Las Vegas. Most recently, she was a part of the 2021 USA Women’s AmeriCup team that went 3-0 in group play and won gold in the competition.
How she helps the Wolfpack
As one would expect of a 6’5 player, Cunane occupies a lot of space on the floor, and her game is reminiscent of an old-school, back-to-the-basket center. Cunane doesn’t post up quite as often as, say, Michigan’s Naz Hillmon or Kansas State’s Ayoka Lee, but post-ups still account for significantly more of Cunane’s halfcourt possessions (47.8 percent, according to Synergy Sports) than any other play type.
There’s a reason for this, and it’s a big part of what makes NC State such a good team. Wolfpack head coach Wes Moore employs a four-out, one-in offense that emphasizes Cunane post-ups and surrounding her with a well-balanced perimeter corps that specializes in 3-point shooting.
That offense has been humming in 2021-22. NC State currently ranks second among Division I teams in offensive rating — 115.6 points scored per 100 possessions, per Her Hoop Stats — and third in 3-point shooting at 39.7 percent. The Wolfpack don’t play at a breakneck pace, instead taking a more deliberate and egalitarian offensive approach to wear opponents down with several key contributors in every game.
Many of those macro-level offensive characteristics can also describe Cunane’s game, so it’s no wonder that Moore built his team’s offense around her — Moore has quipped that “you’d better have a pretty good [center] if you’re running that system.” Despite her height, Cunane’s repertoire has plenty of finesse; she can finish at the basket with both hands, and while she’s capable of burying smaller defenders in the paint and powering through them for layups, she’s just as adept at feathery-soft hook shots, and her ability to shoot over either shoulder makes her a tough cover one-on-one because there’s simply too many moves for a defender to play her for.
While Cunane’s arsenal of post moves is well-polished and is a source of efficient individual offense — according to Her Hoop Stats, Cunane has scored at least 1.21 points per attempt in every season at NC State — her outside jumpshot may be the key to her success at the next level. Cunane has shot better than 40 percent on 3-point shots during her collegiate career, but it’s been on small volume, only totaling 99 attempts. NC State’s offense functions best when Cunane is in the post, but WNBA teams looking to draft her this spring may have different plans.
Watch her play
NC State has only one more regular-season game that will be televised nationally, but it will be a good one: a Feb. 7 matchup against the No. 12 Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets (ESPN2). The battle between Cunane and Georgia Tech’s Lorela Cubaj will definitely be one to watch, especially from the perspective of a WNBA fan; the two bigs have become quite familiar with each other in recent seasons, and both will likely hear their names called in the 2022 WNBA Draft.
For those who get the ACC Network, NC State’s final regular-season game against the Virginia Tech Hokies (Feb. 27) will have another must-watch low-post matchup. Elizabeth Kitley is currently averaging 17.6 points and and 10.3 rebounds per game for the Hokies and is one of the few centers in the ACC who can go toe-to-toe with Cunane.
All statistics and team records for the 2021-22 NCAA season are current through Feb. 5, 2022.