Elissa Cunane Brings Positivity to USA Women’s AmeriCup Finalists
Elissa Cunane only was bestowed the nickname “Big Smile” a couple of years ago, but it perfectly exemplifies her outlook on life and playing basketball.
“Everybody kind of uses it now and just even as a joke, but I can see it, I embody it,” said Cunane, who just finished up her junior season at North Carolina State University. “I definitely just have a positive attitude most of the time and try to be happy, especially when we’re playing basketball. Being on this winning team, with the girls that are on our team, it just brings me joy, and I’m obviously doing the thing I love. I often have a big smile on the court, so I think I embody it.”
For the 20-year-old, this step continues her upward climb on the basketball ladder. This is her third experience with USA Basketball. In 2019, she was invited to the USA U19 World Cup Team trials, and she participated in the Red Bull USA Basketball 3x3 Nationals. At NC State, her production has remained fairly consistent all three seasons, but her role has grown. Cunane was an Associated Press All-America third-team selection as a sophomore and second team as a junior this past season.
“I’m really just excited for this experience,” Cunane said. “This is my first time making a USA Basketball team, my second time trying out. I’m just looking forward to going into training camp again and practicing with these great players. I’ve already learned so much.”
In the recent AmeriCup Team trials, she worked extensively with U.S. assistant coach Adia Barnes, who guided Arizona to the national championship game. Barnes worked with the post players, and Cunane said the coach helped improve her footwork and post moves.
“It’s so cool just to know that she was on that huge stage this year at the end of the NCAA Tournament,” Cunane said of Barnes. “That’s where we want to be as a team as well. I think it’s just really cool to learn from her. And just as a person, she’s an inspiration, especially as a woman, looking up to her. So, I think it’s really cool to be coached by a different figure other than (NC State) coach (Wes) Moore.”
One aspect Cunane said she has taken from her three USA Basketball events is being versatile.
“We were playing two bigs at once,” Cunane said of the recent trials. “I was playing with Liz Kitley, I was playing with Sedona Prince. So, just that dynamic of having to guard maybe a four player, or going against a four player, or somebody bigger than me. I think it just kind of gave me a little bit of a different outlook on the game as well.”
At 6-foot-5, Cunane doesn’t usually get to practice against players the same height or as strong as she is, so facing off against Virginia Tech’s 6-foot-5 Kitley and Oregon’s 6-foot-7 Prince tested her skills.
“It just makes me create in different ways,” Cunane said. “You can’t just use the same move or just go up straight. You need to beat them with speed or a different move, so it makes me think a lot, and that really changes my game, evolves my game (and makes me) into a new player, so it’s not just the same me that I was when I stepped on the court before.”
While she hopes to make the cut for the AmeriCup team and bring home a third gold medal in USA Basketball’s last three appearances in the tournament, Cunane is also hoping to apply her improved skill set when she returns to campus this fall.
She is motivated to improve on her junior season, during which she averaged 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds per game. NC State won the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, where she earned MVP honors after beating Louisville a second time during the season. But after earning a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament, the Wolfpack’s season ended in the Sweet 16 with a 73-70 upset loss to Indiana.
Along with fellow AmeriCup finalist Jakia Brown-Turner, Cunane will be joined on the NC State roster by two transfers, including three recruits some rank in the top 50 in the country.
“I think our squad is going to be really strong and really deep this year,” Cunane said. “I think we’ll have a little bit of a different dynamic than the previous years have had. And then with me coming in as a senior, I’m just looking towards just taking more of a leadership role on the team and hoping to lead us really far. We didn’t go as far as we wanted to last year, so we have a lot of energy, ready to go for the season.”
All of that would certainly lead to more smiles for Cunane.