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Aziaha James powers NC State into the Final Four against undefeated South Carolina

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — This year's women's NCAA Tournament is dotted with the sport's most easily recognizable names: Caitlin, JuJu, Paige and Angel.

Perhaps “Zaza” should be added to that list now that North Carolina State guard Aziaha James has helped get the Wolfpack into the Final Four.

“As y'all saw this weekend, she is that girl,” teammate River Baldwin said.

Called Zaza by her teammates, James scored 29 points — 25 in the second half — in the third-seeded Wolfpack's 77-67 Sweet 16 victory over Stanford, then had 27 — including a career-high seven 3-pointers — in a 76-66 Elite Eight victory over top-seeded Texas.

Now she's headed to the national semifinals in Cleveland, where N.C. State (31-6) will face undefeated South Carolina (36-0) on Saturday.

Two years ago, James was just a freshman when the Wolfpack attempted to reach the Final Four after a lengthy drought. But they fell in double-overtime to UConn.

"People didn't know my name my freshman year, but you know my name now," James said with a laugh after the victory over Texas.

Late in the game, James went into a timeout and raised her arms, urging the Wolfpack fans behind the bench to their feet. In the moment, Zaza was every bit as much of a star as Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, USC’s JuJu Watkins, UConn’s Paige Bueckers or LSU’s Angel Reese.

Her commanding performance was marred in the end by a controversy over the court at the Portland Regional. Before the game, Texas coach Vic Schaefer huddled with NCAA officials and N.C. State coach Wes Moore.

It soon became clear what they were discussing: The 3-point lines on each side of the court were mismatched. Schaefer even guessed later the discrepancy was “about a foot.”

The game went on, with both coaches agreeing it likely didn't make a difference in the end. It certainly didn't matter to James, who made seven of her nine attempts from beyond the different arcs.

Against Stanford, she drew cheers for a 3 from the logo.

“I’m telling you, I don’t know what I would do without Zaza in my ears. We probably hug at least three times a game," said teammate Saniya Rivers.

James wasn't yet born the last time N.C. State reached the Final Four in 1998. Stopped by Louisiana Tech, it was the closest N.C. State has come to a national title.

A 5-foot-9 junior from Virginia, James has come into her own this season. She's averaging 16.4 points to lead the team — a 9.6 point improvement over last year.

“I've seen a lot of growth in Zaza since the beginning of the year, she's really stepped up as a leader,” Baldwin said. “And we feed off her energy.”

Moore agreed.

“She worked so hard over the summer,” he said. “She used to maybe hang her head if things didn't go well, if a shot didn't go in, if I got on her. But now she is a woman. She handles adversity and keeps coming back.”

James and the rest of the Wolfpack have something to prove as their run in the tournament continues: N.C. State was picked to finish eighth in the ACC before the season.

Zaza is getting the last laugh.

“It feels amazing,” James said. “You know, people doubted us and we didn't care what the media had to say. We didn't care what anybody had to say. We showed up on the court every time and we proved who we are.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-womens-bracket/ and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness