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Sports

Previewing women's college basketball in the Triangle for the 2021-22 season

 N.C. State guard Diamond Johnson
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
N.C. State guard Diamond Johnson, a transfer from Rutgers, stares down a free throw attempt in an exhibition game vs. UNC-Pembroke on Nov. 3, 2021 in Raleigh.

College basketball is back. And in most places, fans will be back in arenas in full capacity with vaccines rolling out.

The four Division I women’s basketball teams in the Triangle begin play Tuesday. Duke is hosting Winthrop, North Carolina faces North Carolina A&T at Carmichael Arena, and N.C. Central travels to Illinois.

And in Raleigh, No. 5 N.C. State faces No. 1 South Carolina at 5 p.m. in a nationally televised contest on ESPN. A lot of eyes will be on the game inside Reynolds Coliseum, as Elissa Cunane and the Wolfpack battle Aliyah Boston and the Gamecocks in a match-up that could shake up the national conversation and impact the Associated Press Top 25 Poll.

Here’s a quick look at each team as the season gets underway.

Duke

Duke women's basketball coach Kara Lawson
Mitchell Northam
Duke women's basketball coach Kara Lawson talks to reporters at the ACC Tip-Off event in Charlotte on Oct. 13, 2021.

  • Record Last Season: 3-1 (0-1 ACC) *majority of season postponed
  • Head Coach: Kara Lawson (2nd season)
  • Top Player: Celeste Taylor (Junior, Guard)

Just four games into Lawson’s first season on the job, players on the Duke’s women’s basketball team decided to postpone the remainder of the season due to the pandemic. The Blue Devils kept practicing though, building the foundation for the culture Lawson wants to implement in Durham. This offseason, Lawson combed through the transfer portal to rebuild the roster her way. Among the seven transfers brought in was Taylor, who was instrumental in Texas’ run to the Elite Eight last season. Also joining Duke is Elizabeth Balogun, who played with the Nigerian national team in Tokyo this summer, and Imani Lewis, who led the Big Ten in rebounding while playing with Wisconsin last season. With all the new personalities, Lawson’s challenge will be meshing them together quickly to put a product on the floor that can compete and win in the ACC.

North Carolina

  • Record Last Season: 13-11 (8-9 ACC)
  • Head Coach: Courtney Banghart (3rd season)
  • Top Player: Deja Kelly (Sophomore, Guard)

Banghart guided the Tar Heels to the NCAA tournament last season in just her second year on the job, but the team graduated three starters, all of whom ended up in training camps with WNBA teams. Standout freshmen a year ago, Deja Kelly and Alyssa Utsby return as sophomores. And junior forward Malu Tshitenge is also back to patrol the paint. Joining the Tar Heels this season are four freshmen that make up the nation’s third best recruiting class, according to ESPN. The rookies could be expected to play in a big role right away for the Tar Heels as they look for their second straight NCAA tournament appearance.

N.C. State

  • Record Last Season: 22-3 (12-2 ACC)
  • Head Coach: Wes Moore (9th season)
  • Top Player: Elissa Cunane (Senior, Center)

The Wolfpack return all five starters from a team that won its second straight ACC tournament title last season. Leading that group is Cunane, a preseason honorable mention All-American and the favorite to win the conference’s Player of the Year award. In addition to its returners, N.C. State also added Diamond Johnson and Madison Hayes via transfers from Rutgers and Mississippi State, respectively. Both players were named to their conference’s All-Freshman teams last season. The Wolfpack went to the Sweet 16 for the third straight year last season. Considering all the talent on the roster this year, their sights are on a Final Four berth. The national media considers N.C. State a contender too, as the Wolfpack were ranked No. 5 in the preseason AP Top 25 Poll.

N.C. Central

  • Record Last Season: 4-12 (2-6 MEAC)
  • Head Coach: Trisha Stafford-Odom (5th season)
  • Top Player: Necole Hope (Senior, Guard)

The Eagles have a new look this year and hope to play a full season. Just five of their top 11 leading scorers from a season ago return, with Hope leading the way. A preseason All-MEAC selection, she averaged 10.1 points and 3.9 rebounds per-game a season ago. New to the roster this year are three freshmen and four transfers. Breonna Mayfield joins the Eagles from Georgetown, Kira Lowery from Auburn, Taylor Williams from Charleston, and Tianna Carter from UNLV. If the Eagles can find chemistry quickly, they could compete for the MEAC title, which would put them in the NCAA tournament for the first time since moving up to Division I.

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