Sylvia Hatchell is back on the sideline, but a lot of last season’s stars from Triangle ACC women’s basketball are gone.
Still, much will be the same for the three local teams when the season tips off Friday.
Duke and North Carolina are favored to earn host spots for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in March, while N.C. State will start its season on the bubble. The Blue Devils are behind only defending champion Notre Dame in preseason ACC predictions, followed by newcomer Louisville and then UNC. The Wolfpack is picked ninth.
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Joanne P. McCallie’s team had some of the biggest graduation losses in the country, including WNBA first-round picks Chelsea Gray and Tricia Liston, and then sophomore guard Alexis Jones, who transferred to Baylor.
But returning is senior Elizabeth Williams, who has established herself as one of the nation’s top centers, while redshirt freshman guard Becca Greenwell may be the ACC’s most talented newcomer.
“The new season is very, very exciting,” McCallie said. “We’ve had a terrific conditioning program, and we continue to work hard every day. There’s no doubt we really want to dominate the paint and obviously get the ball to our inside players.”
Duke has two Triangle-area players in versatile 6-foot-5 freshman Azura Stevens out of Cary High and former walk-on point guard Jenna Frush from Northern Durham High, who will play her senior season on scholarship.
The Blue Devils open Sunday at Alabama, with their home opener Nov. 23 against Marquette.
Longtime coach Hatchell missed all of last season as she underwent treatment for leukemia, but she’s back full of fire and ready to go.
UNC has three preseason all-conference players in junior forward Xylina McDaniel, sophomore forward Stephanie Mauvunga and sophomore Allisha Gray. The Tar Heels had no seniors last season, but ACC freshman of the year Diamond DeShields transferred to Tennessee.
“I’m so excited to be back out there,” Hatchell said. “We’ve got leadership, experience, depth and great chemistry. We’ve got a great game plan. I just don’t want to mess them up. I want to add to it and get to the next level.”
UNC opens Friday against visiting Howard before hosting UCLA on Sunday.
Like Duke, the Wolfpack lost a talented senior class, including first-round WNBA pick Markeisha Gatling and third-round pick Kody Burke.
So coach Wes Moore, who in his first season at the helm got N.C. State its first NCAA bid in four years, will move more scoring responsibility to a solid backcourt, including seniors Len’Nique Brown-Hoskin and Krystal Barrett and sophomore Miah Spencer.
“We definitely like the 3-point shot, but the challenge is going to be inside,” Moore said. “We’re fortunate we have some veterans on the perimeter that are going to take a little bit of pressure off the inside game. Hopefully those kids can grow and get better in a hurry so that we’re ready to compete when we open up the ACC schedule.”
N.C. State has one local player in Ashley Williams, a sophomore guard out of Green Hope.
The Wolfpack opens at home Friday night against Tennessee State. The highest-profile pre-Christmas home game is against Minnesota in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 3.
More Triangle talent: Besides Stevens, Frush and Ashley Williams, there are four other players from the Triangle in the ACC.
Millbrook’s Mykia Jones is a sophomore guard at Wake Forest, Durham Hillside’s Chelsea Lindsay is a senior guard at Clemson, and Millbrook sophomores Briana and Bria Day are at Syracuse.