Leslie, No. 8 Wolfpack women stand as last unbeaten D-I team
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The wins keep adding up for Kiara Leslie and eighth-ranked North Carolina State.
The Wolfpack women stand as Division I’s last unbeaten team — not traditional women’s powers Connecticut or reigning national champion Notre Dame, nor coach Mike Krzyzewski and Duke’s much ballyhooed freshmen.
North Carolina State has its highest AP Top 25 ranking in nearly two decades and the best start in program history, with Leslie’s all-around improvement leading the way.
“We don’t over-celebrate it,” Leslie said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Yeah, we know that we are No. 8 and undefeated. But (coach Wes Moore) does a great job with keeping us humble in practice and trying to help us improve on what we need to do.”
Ranked 17th in preseason, North Carolina State (18-0, 5-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) has hovered at No. 8 for three weeks, trailing the same one-loss teams in a poll with little movement at the top. It’s the program’s highest ranking since hitting eighth in November 2001 under late Hall of Famer Kay Yow.
N.C. State’s previous best start was 14-0 in 1999-2000.
“It shows that they show up every night and are ready to play and maybe don’t overlook somebody or take a night off,” Moore said. “So that to me says a lot about this group.”
The success starts with defending and hitting the glass. N.C. State ranks fourth nationally in field-goal percentage defense (.328) and rebounding margin (plus-13), second in fewest fouls per game (12.3) and 21st in shooting percentage (.463) entering Thursday’s visit from Clemson.
Leslie, a 6-foot wing and sister of former Wolfpack men’s player C.J. Leslie, is in her second year in Raleigh as a graduate transfer from Maryland. She averages team highs of 15 points and eight rebounds while ranking second in assists (3.1). Those numbers, along with her shooting and 3-point percentages, are all up from last year — most notably with Leslie nearly doubling her assist average.
“In the game of basketball,” Leslie said, “scoring is not the only thing that you should do.”
Defensively, Leslie routinely draws the toughest perimeter matchup. She leads the Wolfpack in blocks (17) and steals (24), driven by a simple motivation: “I don’t like being scored on.”
Junior guard Aislinn Konig said Leslie’s defensive edge allows teammates to focus on their own assignments without fretting that Leslie will require constant rotation help.
“She doesn’t want to let anybody get a shot off, ever,” Konig said. “We go up against practice guys and oftentimes Coach Moore has to tell her to relax a little bit. So I think it’s definitely just coming in every day and (being) not willing to give an inch.”
Leslie’s development has helped the Wolfpack navigate significant injury trouble. The team lost point guard Kaila Ealey to a preseason knee injury, then Charlotte transfer Grace Hunter (averaging a team-high 14.6 points at the time) to a season-ending knee injury suffered Jan. 3 against Duke.
Leslie responded with a career-high 31 points at Boston College in the next game, then had 25 points with seven rebounds in Sunday’s overtime home win against Virginia Tech.
“I don’t think it should be a one-man show,” Leslie said. “So when someone goes down, I feel like everybody should have to pick it up. And if it’s me that needs to pick it up even more in that game, then I’ll do that.”
Everyone on the roster will have to, considering what’s ahead.
The challenges also are an opportunity for the Wolfpack to rise even higher in the poll.
North Carolina State has the 47th-ranked strength of schedule with its best win coming against No. 23 Michigan State in November before the Spartans were ranked. But there are trips to No. 22 Florida State (Feb. 7), No. 13 Syracuse (Feb. 13) and No. 4 Louisville (Feb. 28) to come, along with a visit from top-ranked Notre Dame (Feb. 18).
How far the Wolfpack go will largely center around Leslie’s play.
“She just has worked so hard to keep improving,” Moore said. “I think coming out of high school, probably people said she’s a great athlete but they weren’t sure about her skills, definitely weren’t sure about her range on her shot.
“I mean, she’s been a godsend for us the last two years. Just amazing what she’s done.”