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Change coming for women’s ACC Tournament, but N.C. State, Duke, UNC focused on winning in Greensboro

North Carolina's Lexi Donarski guards Virginia Tech's Georgia Amoore inside Chapel Hill's Carmichael Arena on Feb. 4, 2024.
Mitchell Northam
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WUNC
North Carolina's Lexi Donarski guards Virginia Tech's Georgia Amoore inside Chapel Hill's Carmichael Arena on Feb. 4, 2024.

For the 24th time in the past 25 years, the Greensboro Coliseum will host the Atlantic Coast Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament. Games tip-off on Wednesday at 1 p.m. when Boston College faces Clemson.

The tournament will change next year when the ACC welcomes three new teams into the league. Stanford and Cal are joining from the soon-to-be-depleted Pac-12, and Southern Methodist University enters the ACC as the conference’s first Texas-based member. When those teams join the league, the ACC will have 18 members in basketball, but its tournaments will still field just 15 teams, meaning that the three teams with the worst records in the league won’t get to be part of March Madness.

The ACC’s regular season schedule will also change next year. With 18 teams playing an 18-game schedule; every school will play each other once, and then one team twice. For UNC-Chapel Hill, that protected rival will be the Duke Blue Devils. So, the Tar Heels will no longer play N.C. State or Virginia Tech twice in the regular season. This year, four of the six games played between the Tar Heels, Wolfpack, and Hokies were sellouts.

But N.C. State coach Wes Moore won’t miss playing those teams twice-a-year, and he thinks expansion is good for the ACC.

“It is what it is. I hope we play (UNC-Chapel Hill) at home next year — how about that? Change is what’s good for the conference. They did what they needed to do,” Moore said. “You saw what happened to the Pac-12? I think that’s what they used to call that conference. Our commissioner (Jim Phillips) wanted to make sure the ACC didn’t have that same issue. So, now we got extra teams. So, (if) somebody decides to leave then we still got a league.”

Also ahead for the tournament is a new venue. In 2027, it will be played in Charlotte's Spectrum Center. Aside from 2017 — when the tournament was moved to Conway, South Carolina due to House Bill 2, which became known as the "bathroom bill" — it's been played in Greensboro every year since 2000.

All that change is in the future though. It’s not something coaches or fans are really thinking about this week as they arrive in Greensboro.

On the line now is a championship. And, of course, positioning for seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

Is N.C. State the favorite?

N.C. State guard Aziaha James after making a shot during warmups on Feb. 1, 2024, in Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
N.C. State guard Aziaha James after making a shot during warmups on Feb. 1, 2024, in Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh.

The Wolfpack are the No. 2 seed in the tournament, but top-seed Virginia Tech — the regular season ACC champions — could be without their best player in the starting lineup.

A native of Summerfield, Hokies’ center Elizabeth Kitley just won her third consecutive ACC Player of the Year award, joining Duke’s Alana Beard and Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas as the only players in the history of the conference to claim the honor three times. But in Virginia Tech’s regular season finale — where they were upset by rival Virginia — Kitley suffered what appeared to be an injury to her left leg in the third quarter and did not re-enter the game. The Hokies have been tight-lipped about her status going forward.

Kitley was the only player in the country this season to average at least 22 points and 11 rebounds per game. She’s a big reason why Virginia Tech won the ACC Tournament last season and went to its first-ever Final Four.

If she can’t play, a clearer path could emerge for N.C. State to reclaim the ACC Tournament crown. The Wolfpack won three titles in a row from 2020 to 2022.

This season, N.C. State is led by a trio of versatile guards in Saniya Rivers, Madison Hayes and Aziaha James who can all shoot from 3-point range, rebound and defend at a high level, and can create offense for themselves and others — like forwards Mimi Collins and River Baldwin.

"I consider Madison kind of a glue player. She does so many things for us — defensively, rebounding, shooting the 3, and just the effort," Moore, the Wolfpack coach, said. "I mean, she's going to give you all she's got. She's going to try to do what you're asking. And it's always good to have players like that around and to be leaders by example."

N.C. State is ranked 10th in the AP Top 25 Poll this week. It beat ranked opponents seven times this season, which leads the nation. The Wolfpack are also one of the best rebounding teams in the country, ranking seventh among the nation's 360 women's D-1 basketball programs in total boards.

As a top-four seed, the Wolfpack received a double-bye in the tournament. They’ll play on Friday, where a rematch with rival Duke is possible.

Youth, defense leading Duke

Duke center Kennedy Brown plays against Notre Dame on Feb. 19, 2024, in Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham.
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
Duke center Kennedy Brown plays against Notre Dame on Feb. 19, 2024, in Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham.

After placing second in the ACC regular-season race last year, the Blue Devils experienced heavy roster turnover due to players either graduating or transferring. Seven of Duke’s top 10 players last season — in terms of minutes played per game — left the program, and an eighth, guard Vanessa de Jesus, was ruled out for the year with an injury.

But fourth-year Duke coach Kara Lawson reloaded the roster with freshmen and transfers. Six of Duke’s top eight players that see the most minutes are sophomores or younger. Rookie guard Oluchi Okananwa won the ACC’s Sixth Player of the Year award after averaging 9.6 points and 6.1 rebounds per game despite not starting a single contest.

And while Duke is young, it has found an identity through defense. The Blue Devils rank fourth nationally in defensive rating, and second nationally in defending 2-point shot attempts — allowing opponents to make just 38% of them.

"We've had to play freshmen more minutes than anybody else in the league this year... This is an old league. And it's hard to win with youth and we've been able to do that," Lawson said. "And I think, for us, our players really buy into each other, and they buy into the collective success, and they buy into winning, and I admire them for that,"

Duke isn’t in the AP Top 25 Poll but has gone 4-6 against AP-ranked opponents this season. The Blue Devils will face the winner of Pitt vs. Georgia Tech on Thursday at 5 p.m.

Tar Heels are a wild card

North Carolina women's basketball coach Courtney Banghart talks to her team during a timeout on Jan. 18, 2024 in Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, Ga.
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
North Carolina women's basketball coach Courtney Banghart talks to her team during a timeout on Jan. 18, 2024 in Georgia Tech's McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, Ga.

North Carolina enters the ACC Tournament as a No. 8 seed with what initially seemed like a difficult path to reach the tournament final — a game the Tar Heels haven’t played in since 2013.

But UNC’s first opponent in the tournament is Miami, a team it has already topped this year. Should UNC win, it will then face a Virginia Tech team that could be without Kitley. Even if Kitley does play, the Tar Heels took the Hokies to overtime at home earlier this season. If the Tar Heels advance to the semifinals, likely waiting for them will be either Louisville or Notre Dame — both teams UNC has beaten this season.

In coach Courtney Banghart’s fifth season at the helm, the Tar Heels went 19-11 in the regular season and 11-7 in ACC play. UNC endured the 24th toughest schedule in the country and long-term injuries to three guards in Kayla McPherson, Paulina Paris and Reniya Kelly.

Two seniors in Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby have been the co-leaders of this team. Kelly averages a team-best 16.8 points per game, while Ustby is one of just two players in the country averaging at least 12 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game.

While UNC has some impressive wins this season over the likes of N.C. State, Oklahoma, and Notre Dame, it has also lost games to Florida Gulf Coast and Boston College. The Tar Heels have been inconsistent at times but have proven that – when they play their best – they can beat almost anyone.

"Greensboro is about to be littered and flooded with talent in future pros and great coaches and really passionate fan bases," Banghart said. "And so, we're just personally and collectively really proud to be part of it."

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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