GREENSBORO — A lot has changed since the ACC held its last pre-COVID women’s basketball tournament at Greensboro Coliseum 12 months ago.
One thing, however, has stayed the same.
For the second year in a row, on the same floor, a lower-seeded Wake Forest has beaten North Carolina in the opening round.
The Deacons got off to a hot-shooting start, withstood a third-period rally by the Tar Heels, then pulled away for an 82-71 victory that greatly enhanced their chances of earning an NCAA tournament bid next week.
Coach Jen Hoover’s team can make an even stronger case for a spot in the field of 68 when it takes on top-seeded Louisville in the tournament quarterfinals on Friday.
“They’ve got some experience on that team that understands what it means to play here,” Hoover, who became the winningest coach in program history with her 126th career win, said of UNC. “They’ve also got a lot of youth on that team that wants this to be a special place. But for two years in a row now, the Deacs have kind of ended their trips.”
Wake (12-11) gave an indication early that it might be its day.
It came in the person of freshman Jewel Spear. The 5-foot-10 guard got off to a torrid start by hitting four three-pointers in the first quarter alone.
She went on to make seven of her 10 attempts from beyond the arc to finish with a career-high 29 points. But it was her early barrage that helped give her ninth-seeded team the boost of confidence it needed to knock off its in-state rival for the second time in three meetings this season.
“It definitely helps with running the offense, what plays to call, when to call them and just keep the ball moving,” point guard Gina Conti said of her teammates’ hot shooting, which she called “amazing.
“She was drawing a lot of defensive attention, which was opening up the inside. We got her the ball and she knocked them down, which was helpful.”
With Spear hitting from the outside, senior post Ivana Raca taking care of business around the rim on both ends of the court on her way to a 21-point, 12-rebound double-double, the Deacons rolled out to a 31-17 lead with 7:13 remaining in the second quarter.
“We allowed defense to be our (Achilles’) heel tonight,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “I think we’ve been pretty good defensively all year long. I think we were averaging about 66 (points allowed). We gave up 82. That’s just not a good enough effort in March to get stops. They obviously came in guns a-firing.”
The Tar Heels (13-10) eventually managed to cool off the Deacons — at least somewhat — producing some offense of their own as well.
And like their opponent, it was the freshmen that led them.
Alyssa Ustby scored a career-high 23 points on 11-of-17 shooting to go along with nine rebounds while classmate Deja Kelly added 19 points. The duo, along with graduate point guard Stephanie Watts (16 points), led a late first-half surge that narrowed the deficit to 39-34 at the break.
Ustby then scored eight of her points in the first 5½ minutes of the third quarter, including a fastbreak layup that gave UNC a 49-47 lead.
But just when it appeared as though the Tar Heels might be ready to take over — enhancing their own NCAA Tournament credentials — Conti took matters into her own hands. The senior, playing in what could have been her final college game, keyed an 11-4 run over the final 2:08 of the period by scoring seven points, to go along with an assist and two steals.
Wake carried the momentum into the fourth quarter, outsourcing UNC 24-17 the rest of the way to come away with the victory. Conti finished with 13 points and 12 assists.
“When you look at a senior point guard that gets 12 assists on the biggest stage there is and then your senior post (Raca) is a double-double … we did what we needed to do,” Hoover said, adding that Conte “has been a warrior for us all four years.
“At different times we got a little frustrated but we just settled in and said, you know what, I got this.”
While Wake’s record doesn’t jump off the page, its NET ranking of 51 coming into the game puts it squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble.
But not according to Hoover.
“I felt we were an NCAA team from the get-go and there’s no way they can take that team (UNC) after what we’ve done to them twice this year without taking the Deacs, bottom line, in my opinion,” she said. “But a lot of people don’t care about my opinion.”
Syracuse 67, Boston College 61
The Orange and Eagles met for the second time in a week and while the rematch played out differently than the game seven days ago at the Carrier Dome, the end result was the same – with a victory by Syracuse.
Kiara Lewis scored 21 points, and Digna Strautmane added 13 as the fifth-seeded Orange (13-7) held on for the win and a spot opposite No. 4 Florida State in Friday’s 2:30 p.m. quarterfinal.
The 13th-seeded Eagles (7-12) pulled within 63-61 with 17.9 seconds remaining when Makayla Dickens connected on her fourth 3-pointer of the fourth quarter. But the Orange stemmed the tide from completely turning, as Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi and Priscilla Williams each connected on a pair of free throws for the final six-point winning margin.
Virginia Tech 72, Miami 64
The Hokies earned a quarterfinal date against second-seeded NC State by jumping out to an early lead and holding off a scrappy finish by the Hurricanes.
Led by the tandem of Elizabeth Kitley and Cayla King, who combined to score 31 points, Tech built a 21-point lead at 57-36 with a little more than 13 minutes remaining.
Although Miami battled back behind the scoring of reigning ACC Player of the Week Destiny Harden, who finished with a career-high 27 points and 11 rebounds, the Hurricanes were unable to get closer than seven.
Clemson 68, Notre Dame 63
Kendall Spray banked in a 3-point shot from the right wing as the shot clock wound down to give the Tigers a four-point lead with 17.6 seconds remaining, and Amari Robinson added a pair of free throws as the Tigers rallied from a 10-point third-quarter deficit to upend sixth-seeded Notre Dame (10-10) in the final game of Thursday’s second-round session.
Clemson (11-12) moved on to Friday night’s 8:30 p.m. quarterfinal game versus third-seeded Georgia Tech (14-7). The Yellow Jackets defeated the Tigers twice during the regular season, most recently a 71-69 decision on Feb. 4 that was the first loss in what became a six-game Clemson losing streak entering the ACC Tournament.
Freshman Gabby Elliott scored a career-high 25 points led Clemson, including a layup with 1:27 remaining in the game that put the Tigers up 61-60.