Good news for many teams in the women’s NCAA tournament is that they get to play on their home courts.
Both Duke and North Carolina have that advantage as the field gets into action Saturday, while N.C. State got about the next best thing.
No. 9 Duke (27-6), seeded No. 2 in the Lincoln (Neb.) Regional, opens the show at 11 a.m. (ESPN2) at Cameron Indoor Stadium, taking on No. 15 seed and Big South Conference champion Winthrop (24-8). That will be followed by No. 7 seed DePaul (27-6) against No. 10 seed Oklahoma (18-14), with the survivors squaring off 6:30 p.m. Monday.
The No. 16 Wolfpack (25-7), seeded No. 5 in the Lincoln Regional, will face No. 12 seed Brigham Young (26-6) at Los Angeles’ Pauley Pavilion at 6:30 p.m. EDT (ESPN2), with the winner playing Monday night at 9 against the survivor between No. 4 seed Nebraska (25-6) and No. 13 seed Fresno State (22-10). State senior forward Kody Burke is a Los Angeles-area native.
No. 12 UNC (24-9), the No. 4 seed in the Stanford Regional will start play on Sunday at 3 (ESPN) at Carmichael Arena against No. 14 seed Tennessee-Martin (24-7). No. 5 seed Michigan State (22-9) and No. 12 seed Hampton (28-4) will play in that 12:30 p.m. opener.
Winthrop is playing in the tournament for the first time, but Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said there’s no reason to take the Eagles lightly.
“They’re a super team,” McCallie said, adding that the Eagles lost only 69-61 at No. 1 seed South Carolina on Dec. 20. “They’re guard-driven and very quick. They have one of the best players around in Dequesha McClanahan, and Erica Williams has really come on for them. I’m amazed at how physical Williams plays, because she’s just a freshman, and she takes on everybody.”
Winthrop coach Kevin Cook said the Eagles are under no pressure.
“We have nothing to lose,” Cook said. “(Duke) is one of the elite programs in the country. We’re going to come in with no fear. If we can survive the first five minutes of the game I think we’re going to be golden. We’ve matured since (the USC game), and in a nutshell, this is a one-game series.”
It’s the last chance to get to the Final Four for Duke seniors Tricia Liston, Haley Peters and Richa Jackson, who have seen each of their seasons end in the Elite Eight round. Classmate Chelsea Gray has been out since January with a broken kneecap.
“It’s our last go around, our last ‘new season’ of the year and we just want to make the most of it,” Peters said. “Being able to be in Cameron for our first two games is a really special thing for us going out.”
Added Liston: “We’re just trying to take it one game at a time and earn the right to play another game with this team, because after that we’re moving on and we won’t be able to play under coach or with our teammates again. It’s a bittersweet feeling knowing that.”
Winthrop has a local connection in redshirt freshman wing Zoe Vernon out of Carolina Friends School.
“I was excited when I found out I was going to get to come home,” said Vernon, who said she grew up a UNC fan but had attended a camp at Duke. “When I saw it on the screen I just thought ‘Playing in Cameron is going to be really cool!’”
First-year State coach Wes Moore is no stranger to NCAA Tournaments from his previous job at Tennessee-Chattanooga, but this is the first time he has coached a favored team.
“That makes it a little different,” Moore said. “But when you get into March, all these teams are good. BYU is well coached and has great talent. Any time you have a 6-7 post player like (Jennifer) Hamson, a senior who has been through it, and they can put four people around her that shoot the ‘3’ extremely well. That’s a big challenge.”
Burke and classmates Markeisha Gatling and Breezy Williams are playing in their only NCAA tournament, while classmates Myisha Goodwin-Coleman and Lakeesa Daniel are both out with torn ACLs.
“I have between 30 and 35 people coming,” Burke said. “What a great opportunity. Throughout my whole college career, my mom hasn’t seen me play live, and this is just a great opportunity for her to do so. (Playing in L.A. has) definitely inspired me to play my best, and I know my teammates and my coach have my back and we’re going to shock the world.”