Duke, N.C. State and UNC going to the big dance

STAFF WRITERMarch 15, 2010 

N.C. State women's basketball player Sharnise Beal, left, gets a hug from coach Kellie Harper during the NCAA announcement at Backyard Bistro in Raleigh. The Wolfpack earned a No. 9 seed and will face No. 8 UCLA in the first round in Minneapolis. State, which returns to the NCAA Tournament field for the time since 2007, was placed in the Kansas City Region.

JOHN ROTTET — JOHN ROTTET - jrottet@newsobserver.com

For the first time in two years, no Triangle ACC women’s basketball team was left out of the NCAA tournament.

As expected, Duke, which earned an automatic bid, got a No. 2 seed in the 2010 tournament, while ninth-seeded N.C. State and 10th-seeded North Carolina erased concerns that their programs would end the season without a place on a bracket line. Both the Wolfpack and Tar Heels earned at-large bids.

“Finally, it’s a good feeling to know when, where and who,” said State first-year coach Kellie Harper, whose team meets eighth-seeded UCLA in the first round Sunday at Minneapolis.

A throng of supporters at the Backyard Bistro in Raleigh hailed the ESPN television announcement of State’s selection in the Kansas City Regional. It marks the Pack’s first appearance in the tournament since 2007.

Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State are three of six ACC teams in the field, along with No. 3 Florida State, No. 5 Virginia and No. 6 Georgia Tech.

Connecticut earned the tournament’s top seed in the Dayton Regional after bulldozing its way to a 33-0 record. Having won 72 consecutive games over two seasons, the defending national champion Huskies are the clear favorites as the 64 teams vie for a spot in the 2010 Women’s Final Four at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, on April 4-6.

The three other No. 1 seeds are Stanford (31-1), Nebraska (30-1) and Tennessee (30-2).

Duke meets Hampton in the first round of the Memphis Regional. The Blue Devils (27-5) are set to host the Pirates (20-11) on Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Second-round games are scheduled for Monday, with tickets available for both rounds.

After hosting opening-round games from 1998-2002 and 2004, the Devils carry a 12-game homecourt tournament winning streak into this weekend’s event. They welcome the chance to play before a supportive crowd, considering they have lost just once this season in Durham.

“We love it,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “There’s no doubt we love playing at Cameron and want to make the most of it.”

The Devils enter this tournament as the nation’s sixth-ranked team, positioned to make a deep run into the late rounds after earlier exits in the past two seasons. If seeds were to hold, they would meet Tennessee in the Memphis Regional final.

Last season, the Devils were upset in the second round by Michigan State in McCallie’s return to the home arena of her former team. In 2008, they were defeated by Texas A&M in the regional semifinals.

In their 16th straight tournament appearance, the Devils seem to be on sure footing as they challenge for the school’s first national championship. They arrive with a share of the ACC regular-season title and their first ACC tournament championship since 2004.

“This team has proven twice over that they are championship caliber,” McCallie said. “And the idea is to have with this and take that championship experience and just drive it home.”

Led by junior guard Jasmine Thomas, an All-America candidate, the Devils have seven victories over ranked opponents, including their signature win on Dec. 3 over Ohio State, a team ranked No. 3 at the time.

A defense-first mentality has carried the Devils through the season, and they expect that approach to bode well for them over the next two weeks. The Devils last reached the Final Four in 2006.

The Heels (19-11) erupted at news of their berth in the field, fearing beforehand that a late-season decline might keep them out for the first time since 2001. They will play 10th seed Gonzaga on Saturday in Seattle in the Sacramento Regional.

After back-to-back appearances in the Final Four in 2006 and 2007, the Heels find themselves with their lowest seed ever and an outside chance of challenging for the school’s second national championship.

Despite an 88-66 victory over N.C. Central in their season finale Sunday, the Heels closed the season with eight losses in their past 11 games, struggling to find the up-tempo, high-scoring game that had made them a dangerous foe in past seasons.

Earlier in the season, with junior guards Italee Lucas and Cetera DeGraffenreid leading the way, the Heels reeled off victories, but since a crushing 88-47 loss to UConn on Jan. 9 they have slipped into a cold-shooting funk.

UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell has said the team misses the leadership of senior Jessica Breland, who sat out the season while recovering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Still, the Heels’ season could take yet another turn where they find cohesion and consistency and corral their eight sophomores and freshmen. If they rebound, run and score with authority, they may prove talented enough to spoil another team’s plans.

“We’ve been trying to fit the pieces together,” Hatchell said. “We just have to cut loose.”

State (20-13) carries the confidence of a team coming into its own. After storming into the finals of the ACC Tournament, the Pack is playing as though it doesn’t want to turn in its uniforms. to equipment director Brenda Keene.

Well-rested after a hard-fought loss to Duke in the conference tournament, the Pack is again prepared to hit the floor for loose balls, bend low for steals and slip into position for rebounds. The Pack has made a name for itself as an undersized, scrappy bunch that excels despite its obvious limitations, enforcing a determined defense to slow taller, higher-scoring teams down.

State fans may find many similarities this season with the Pack’s 2007 postseason. That year the Pack made a miraculous run into the regional final, inspired by the return of coach Kay Yow, who had left the team to address issues with breast cancer.

Yow, who died last year, served as the motivating factor for that team. In her first season, Harper has motivated this current team, imploring players to “believe” that they could hurdle the obstacles on and off the court.

The Pack has made the Final Four only once in 1998 as a No. 4 seed.

“I love the attitude of this team,” Harper said. “I love where they are mentally. I think they understand what’s gotten them into the NCAA tournament. It’s defense, our heart and our hustle. All the things you can control every day.”

2010 NCAA Women’s Tournament

What: First and second rounds

When: Saturday March 20at noon and 2:30 p.m.; Monday March 22 at 7 p.m.

Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham

Tickets: Both sessions are $32 for reserved, $22 for youth/senior reserved, $27 for general admission and $17 for youth/senior general admission. Single-game tickets are $16 for reserved seats, $11 for youth/senior reserved, $14 for general admission and $9 for youth/senior general admission seats.

edward.robinson@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4781

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