Top-seeded NC State leads 5 state teams into NCAA women’s tourney

The ACC champion Wolfpack earned a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history while Wake Forest, UNC, NC A&T and High Point all earned spots in the 68-team field

NC State coach Wes Moore cuts down the net at Greensboro Coliseum after the Wolfpack won their second straight ACC Tournament title. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

NC State didn’t have to wait long to find out that it had earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament for the first time in school history.

The Wolfpack was the first team to be revealed on the selection show Monday. It is joined by UConn, Stanford and South Carolina as the top four seeds in the 68-team field.

Coach Wes Moore’s team will begin its quest for the national champion on Sunday at 4 p.m. against 16th-seeded NC A&T. All games in the women’s tournament will be played in the NCAA’s bubble in San Antonio.

Three other state teams — Wake Forest, North Carolina and High Point — also earned NCAA bids.

Despite a resume that includes two wins against top-ranked teams and an ACC Tournament championship, State’s inclusion on the top line of the so-called Mercado Region bracket was anything but a foregone conclusion.

In the NCAA’s final regular season top 16 reveal, the Wolfpack was listed as a No. 2 seed.

“They were excited because we didn’t have to wait very long,” Moore said of his players, who watched the selection show at a popular Raleigh restaurant named for former State men’s coach Jim Valvano. “It came up quick, so they erupted. They were pretty fired up about it. But now you’ve got to go and play basketball.”

The Wolfpack is 22-2, with its only two losses coming to rival North Carolina on the road and Virginia Tech in overtime in a game All-American center Elissa Cunane missed while recovering from a case of COVID-19.

According to selection committee chairperson Nina King, a senior deputy athletic director at Duke, the Wolfpack’s play down the stretch and in the ACC Tournament is what helped catapult it past Texas A&M, Baylor and Maryland as a No. 1 seed.

“We started with the most recent top 16 reveal and what teams had done between then and now, and who had played their way either up or down,” King, whose school’s own team opted out of the season, said on the selection show. “Seeding is about how teams are playing now, and NC State really finished the season strong, so we felt they were deserving of a spot on the one line.”

State’s path to its second Final Four would include a second-round matchup against either No. 8 South Florida or No. 9 Washington State, along with potential games against fourth-seeded Indiana and No. 2 Texas A&M.

Although the Wolfpack didn’t shoot well during its three-game run to the ACC title, capped by a dramatic victory against Louisville, Moore likes his veteran team’s chances. State also won the conference tournament last year but was deprived of a shot at a deep NCAA run by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m just very proud of this team and what they’ve accomplished all year, and we start a new season now,” Moore said. “That’s what we’ve always done. We have the nonconference, then the conference and then you have the conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament. So we start a new one now. It’s one game at a time.” 

A&T (14-2) earned its spot in the NCAA bracket by winning its third Mid-Eastern Athletic Association tournament title. The Aggies won the championship by beating Howard 59-57 on a 3-point basket by Deja Winters with three seconds left.

This will be the 10th meeting between State and A&T.  The Wolfpack has won all nine previous games, including an 80-44 victory in Raleigh on Nov. 6, 2019.

“It’s in-state rival as far as DI schools in the state,” Aggies coach Tarrell Robinson said.  “It’s a great draw. It’s a familiar team. We are excited. It’s a challenge for our young women. NC State has been top-5, top-3 in the nation all season. We have such a young team, so I don’t think they really know how to process all this yet.”

A&T isn’t the only state team matched against a top seed.

The reward for High Point’s Big South Conference Tournament win and first NCAA appearance is a date with perennial power UConn. Game time on Sunday for the 16th-seeded Panthers (22-6) and No. 1 Huskies at part of the Riverwalk Region is 8 p.m. UConn will be without coach Geno Auriemma, who tested positive for COVID-19 and will be able to rejoin the team on March 24 at the earliest.

While A&T and High Point earned automatic bids, Wake Forest and UNC were at-large selections.

Although coach Jen Hoover’s Deacons were projected to be squarely on the bubble because of their 12-12 record, they ended getting into the field easily as a No. 9 seed on the strength of their six wins against top-50 opponents.

Wake will take on No. 8 Oklahoma State in the Alamo Region at 1 p.m. on Monday, with the winner likely to face No. 1 Stanford.

“I am so proud of this group,” Hoover said. “From the first day they stepped on campus on July 6, I knew this was a special group that had the opportunity to get Wake Forest back where it belongs, the NCAA Tournament. I am especially thankful for our senior class for the hard work they have put in over the last four seasons. Their leadership both on and off the court this season has been vital to our success.”

North Carolina, meanwhile, is the 10th seed in the Hemisfair Region and is matched against No. 7 Alabama at noon on Monday with No. 2 seed Maryland potentially waiting in the wings.

It is the 28th NCAA Tournament trip for the 13-10 Tar Heels, but the first in the tenure of coach Courtney Banghart.

“We’re so excited to know that this challenging season will end in the NCAA Tournament, which has been our goal all along,” Banghart said. “This group has worked hard and continued to improve all year, and we’re grateful to head for Texas and keep playing.”