The NCAA Tournament selection committee was much kinder to NC State’s women’s basketball team than it was when it snubbed the Wolfpack men 24 hours earlier.
Coach Wes Moore’s team was seeded third in the South Region and will host the first two rounds at Reynolds Coliseum this weekend, starting with a regular season rematch with 14th-seeded Maine on Saturday.
Although State might eventually have to play both No. 2 Iowa and top-seeded Baylor to earn a trip to its first Final Four since 1998, it will at least get to play the games close to home with regional semifinal and final rounds set for Greensboro Coliseum.
North Carolina, the only other state team to make the 64-team women’s tournament, is also in the South bracket as the No. 9 seed. The Tar Heels will take on No. 8 California in Waco, Texas, also on Saturday. The Wolfpack and Tar Heels are two of a record eight ACC teams to earn spots in the tournament field.
“It’s a new season,” Moore said after tournament selections were officially announced on Monday — about two hours after they were accidentally leaked on national television by ESPN. “Everybody erases their record and we start over, so hopefully we can get some momentum and play really well.”
The Wolfpack (26-5) has already had an eventful season. It was the last undefeated team in the nation after winning its first 21 games and continued to play at a high level despite losing four key players to season-ending knee injuries.
One of those victories was an 84-46 rout of Maine on Dec. 14. If State wins the rematch, it would advance and host a second-round matchup against either sixth-seeded Kentucky or No. 11 Princeton on Monday.
Graduate forward Kiara Leslie leads the team in both scoring and rebounding at 15.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, while ACC All-Freshman team selection Elissa Cunane has emerged as an inside force by averaging 13.6 points and 5.7 rebounds.
Junior Aislinn Konig is the top perimeter threat, shooting 41 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity this year, but the kids have overcome that,” Moore said. “We’re excited about (the tournament).”
While State has its sights set on advancing deeper into this year’s event than it did with a Sweet 16 run a year ago — which also began with two home games — rival UNC was happy just to hear its name called again on Selection Monday.
Coach Sylvia Hatchell’s Tar Heels (18-14) have missed out on the last three NCAA tournaments. They earned their first bid since 2015 on the strength of two significant victories — against then-No. 1 Notre Dame on Jan. 27 and an upset of then-undefeated State two games later.
“I’m just glad to be back in the tournament,” Hatchell told Goheels.com. “The pressure is not on us, it’s on our opponents. We’ve proved that we can play really good basketball, and we’re just glad to have the opportunity.”
Dynamic senior guard Paris Kea earned first-team All-ACC honors while leading the Tar Heels in scoring at 17.1 points per game and ranking second on the team with an average of 3.1 assists. Her career scoring average of 17.8 is the second highest in program history.
Six-foot-4 center Janelle Bailey, the 2018 ACC Rookie of the Year, is a second-team all-conference selection who averages 16.7 points and a team-leading 8.9 rebounds per game.
This is UNC’s 23rd NCAA tournament under Hatchell, who led the Tar Heels to the 1994 national championship and the Final Four in both 2006 and 2007. Should they beat Cal (19-12) on Saturday, they would likely face the daunting task of playing top-seeded and only once-beaten Baylor on its home floor.
The Bears face Abilene Christian in their opening game.
UNC would be a decided underdog if that game comes about. But according to Hatchell, her team won’t be intimidated.
“I told the team, ‘Listen, you’re good. You can play with anybody we play against from here on out,’” she said. “‘Accept the challenge and feel the exhilaration of the tournament.’”