ACC women’s tournament returns to Greensboro

NC State will look repeat and strengthen its case to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, while UNC and Wake Forest hope to extend their seasons

Elissa Cunane and the Wolfpack are ranked third in the nation but seeded second in this week’s ACC Tournament behind Louisville. (Ethan Hyman / The News & Observer via AP)

NC State won’t have to work hard if it’s looking for motivation heading into this week’s ACC women’s basketball tournament.

The Wolfpack is seeded No. 2 behind Louisville despite being ranked higher nationally, finishing tied with the Cardinals in the loss column of the conference standings and having won the only head-to-head meeting between the teams during the regular season.

The thing is, according to coach Wes Moore, the defending tournament champions are already motivated enough on their own without needing external factors such as seedings to fire them up.

“We don’t really talk about that stuff a whole lot, to be honest with you,” said Moore, the newly minted ACC Coach of the Year whose Wolfpack will play its first game on Friday against either Virginia Tech or Miami. “Really when you think about it, what’s the difference between a No. 1 and No. 2 seed?

“I don’t think it will matter a whole lot. It just means that if you make it all the way and beat each other, then you are the one in dark uniforms (for the final).”

One difference is that the Wolfpack could potentially face an opening game against one of the two teams that beat them during the regular season. The Hokies scored an overtime upset in Blacksburg on a night in which State star Elissa Cunane was still recovering from COVID-19.

Moore, however, dismissed the possible degree of difficulty by saying that his team is going to have to play three tough games to win the title regardless of which side of the bracket it’s on.

“It’s all about us,” he said. “It’s about us being the best version of NC State we can be. Let the chips fall where they may.”

The tournament, which will be played with a limited number of spectators in attendance, will be held at Greensboro Coliseum starting on Wednesday with a play-in game between 13th-seeded Pittsburgh and No. 14 Boston College.

It kicks into high gear on Thursday with a noon matchup between North Carolina and Wake Forest, which are seeded eighth and ninth, respectively.

The in-state rivalry isn’t just important for bragging rights and the opportunity to earn a shot at top-seeded Louisville in Friday’s quarterfinals. It could also be a determining factor for both teams’ NCAA Tournament hopes.

The Tar Heels, 13-9 overall (8-9 ACC), are already projected to be in the field, while the Deacons, who finished the regular season at 11-11 (8-10 ACC), need to do some work just to get onto the NCAA bubble.

UNC women’s coach Courtney Banghart is hoping a strong ACC Tournament will solidify an NCAA berth for the Tar Heels. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)

Other first-round games on Thursday have No. 5 Syracuse taking on the Pitt-BC winner, No. 7 Virginia Tech against No. 10 Miami, and No. 6 Notre Dame against No. 11 Clemson. Georgia Tech is the No. 3 seed, while Florida State received the fourth and final double-bye.

Duke and Virginia have both opted out of the season over COVID-19 concerns and won’t participate.

The tournament wraps up with a nationally televised championship game on Sunday afternoon.

“We just have to approach it like we have all year,” Deacons coach Jen Hoover said, adding that, “It’s March and it’s one of my favorite times of the year. … This week we are 0-0 and we have one game, two games or three games or whoever knows how many games.”

The game between Wake and UNC is a rematch of last year’s opening round in which the Deacons beat the Tar Heels on the way to a surprise semifinal run. The teams have met twice this season, with Wake winning 57-54 in Winston-Salem and the Tar Heels getting revenge at home with a 77-74 overtime victory.

Those games, however, were played in 10 days way back in December.

“We get excited when we get to play schools in the Carolinas multiple times a year because that’s the heart of the ACC for us,” Hoover said.

UNC coach Courtney Banghart said it doesn’t matter who her team is playing, given the way it finished the regular season.

The Tar Heels won five of their final six games, including an upset of NC State on Feb. 7. The only loss during that time was a rematch with the Wolfpack at Reynolds Coliseum.

“I like where we are,” Banghart said. “It’s been a really challenging schedule and we’ve just kept on keeping on. And that includes 50% of our scoring, minutes and rebounds coming from true freshmen.

“So we’ve just developed. We’re a better team than we were a month ago and a much better team than we were two months ago. I feel good about where this group is, and I’m excited to see how we continue moving forward.”