Big Four women’s teams look to move up in top-heavy ACC

The conference is still ruled by powerhouses Notre Dame and Louisville, but Duke, NC State, North Carolina and Wake Forest look to made headway

NC State guard Kiara Leslie will be a key part of the Wolfpack’s efforts to join the upper echelon of the ACC. (Orlin Wagner / AP Photo)

Much like their counterparts on the men’s side, women’s basketball teams in the ACC face a daunting challenge to reach the top tier.

The ACC should once again be a top-heavy league, with defending national champion Notre Dame and tournament and regular-season champion Louisville both returning strong teams. Syracuse and Miami should also be contenders for league and national honors.

That leaves North Carolina’s Big Four fighting to break through and join the elite company. All four teams are in transition this year. Two of them — NC State and Duke — start the year in the same spot as they ended last season, near the bottom of the top 25. The other two — Wake Forest and UNC — look to bounce back from tough years.

Here’s a look at the prospects for the Big Four women this season:

NC State

Last year: 26-9 (11-5 ACC). Preseason polls: 17th in AP national poll, fourth in ACC media and coaches polls.

The Wolfpack is finally getting some respect in the preseason poll. In the previous five seasons, State has been picked ninth or 10th four times and never higher than seventh. Over that same span, the Pack has finished fourth three years and has outperformed their preseason prediction four of the five seasons.

The Pack is coming off back-to-back NCAA appearances for the first time since 2006-07 and has won a tourney game in two straight years for the first time in two decades. They’ll need to replace Chelsea Nelson (12.9 points, 9.4 rebounds) and center Akela Maize (10 points, 5.5 rebounds).

State will be led by guards Kiara Leslie (12.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.7 assists) and Aislinn Konig (10.3 points, 2.4 rebounds) but was dealt a crushing loss just prior to the season when Kaila Ealey (8.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists) suffered a season-ending knee injury.


Last year: 24-9 (11-5 ACC). Preseason polls: 21st in AP national poll, fifth in ACC media poll, sixth in ACC coaches poll.

The Blue Devils advanced to the NCAA regionals for the 17th time in school history, but Duke will need to replace two four-year stars in Lexie Brown (19.4 points) and Rebecca Greenwell (15.1 points).

The Blue Devils will turn to a pair of juniors to pick up the slack in guard Haley Gorecki (11.0 points) and Leaonna Odom (9.6 points). Odom led the team with 21 points per game in the tournament and is a preseason Player of the Year candidate. Gorecki is an explosive scorer who sat out the year before last with a hip injury. Another hip injury caused her to miss the last 10 games last season, but she’ll be back scoring this year. Guard Kyra Lambert (7.8 points in 2016-17) reinjured the knee that cost her all of last season and will miss 2018-19.

North Carolina

Last year: 15-16 (4-12 ACC). Preseason polls: Eighth in ACC media poll, seventh in ACC coaches poll.

The Tar Heels have struggled in recent years, feeling the pain from the school’s multisport NCAA investigation into paper classes. Last year’s 15-16 record was a near miss for a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 2015. Now that UNC has been cleared, head coach Sylvia Hatchell is restocking the team with talent.

Senior point guard Paris Kea is the team leader and best player. A preseason All-ACC selection, she averaged 18.8 points and 4.9 assists last year. She’ll be joined by 2018 ACC Freshman of the Year Janelle Bailey. Like Kea, she was voted preseason All-ACC, making the Heels one of two teams with multiple players on the team — national champion Notre Dame is the other.

The Heels will also get back junior guards Stephanie Watts (16.8 points in 2016-17) and Destinee Walker (12.4 points in 2016-17), who both missed all of last season with knee injuries.

Wake Forest

Last year: 14-17 (5-11 ACC). Preseason polls: 12th in ACC media and coaches polls.

The Deacs welcome five new freshmen to a team that needs to replace point guard Amber Campbell (10.5 points), who graduated, and senior Ariel Stephenson (8.9 points), who was ruled out for the year in October with a shoulder injury.

The team will be led by preseason All-ACC selection forward Elisa Penna (15.8 points). The senior is also a candidate for the Cheryl Miller award, given to the country’s best small forward.

Sophomore Gina Conte replaces Campbell at the point and has scored 20 points with 12 assists in the season’s first three games. Forward Ona Udoh is also making strides this year. After averaging just 4.0 points last season with two double-figure scoring games in her career, she’s hit double digits in each of her first three contests.