Rough road to Final Four for NC State women

The Wolfpack are the No. 1 seed in the Bridgeport Region but could face UConn in front of a pro-Huskies crowd

Elissa Cunane and the Wolfpack are the No. 1 seed in the Bridgeport Region and are hoping to reach their first Final Four under coach Wes Moore. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

Officially, NC State is the top seed in the Bridgeport Region of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.

Wolfpack coach Wes Moore has a different name for it.

“I thought we were going to the NCAA,” he said Monday in an interview with the Sports Freaks radio show in Asheville. “It turns out we’re going to the Geno Invitational.”

The reference is a not-so-veiled swipe at UConn coach Geno Auriemma and the pull his ultra-successful program seems to have with the NCAA.

It’s a cachet, built on the foundation of 11 national championships and 21 trips to the Final Four over the past three decades, that will put Moore’s top-seeded team at a decided home-court disadvantage should it advance to the regional final against Auriemma’s second-seeded Huskies.

That game would be played at Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena, just 82 miles from UConn’s campus in Storrs. In anticipation of the local team’s participation, most of the tickets in the 10,000-seat facility have already been gobbled up by Huskies fans.

The disparity of the situation is clearly something about which Moore is not happy.

But unlike fans and the media, it’s not something he’s going to spend a lot of time debating. At least not yet.

There’s still too much work to do in a loaded bracket — for both teams — to stress over a game that might never be played.

“You could definitely make an argument that we could have probably got a little different fate there, but we can’t worry about it,” Moore said. “It’s going to be a big challenge to get through the opening weekend. Then you’re going to play somebody really good, as we found out a year ago in the Sweet 16 if you get that far. So we’ve got work to do, they’ve got work to do. Hopefully we make it that far.”

State, which begins NCAA play on Saturday at Reynolds Coliseum against the winner of a play-in game between Longwood and Mount St. Mary’s, is one of three North Carolina teams selected into the women’s NCAA field, which has been expanded to 68 this year.

North Carolina (23-6) is the No. 5 seed in the Greensboro Region, where it will face No. 10 Stephen F. Austin in the opening round in Tucson, Arizona, on Saturday. Two wins would earn the Tar Heels a potential date against No. 1 South Carolina — the tournament’s top overall seed — back home in the Old North State in the Sweet 16.

Conference USA champion Charlotte (22-9) will join NC State in the Bridgeport Region as the No. 14 seed, where it will take on third-seeded Indiana on Saturday in Bloomington, Indiana.

Besides the potential Elite Eight matchup against UConn, the Wolfpack (29-3) could also face possible showdowns against No. 9 Kansas State (a team NC State has already faced this season), No. 5 Notre Dame (the only ACC team to beat the Wolfpack this season) and either No. 3 Indiana (the team that eliminated the Pack in last year’s Sweet 16) or No. 6 Kentucky (the hottest team in the nation with 10 straight wins).

It’s a gauntlet Moore is at a loss to explain. Duke athletic director and NCAA selection committee chair Nina King didn’t offer much help when she tried to explain it on a conference call shortly after the bracket was released.

“First and foremost, we start with the S-curve and then we’ve got bracketing principles we follow to make sure that any conflicts are avoided — same conference matchups, for example, in the first or second rounds, or games that have already happened between teams this year,” she said, apparently forgetting that’s exactly what they didn’t avoid when it came to State’s draw.

“Then we take into account fan experience, student-athlete welfare, modes of transportation — whether it’s a drive or a flight. So there’s a variety of things we certainly take into account and had a lot of discussion about. Certainly UConn in Bridgeport was one of those that we spent a lot of time ensuring that we got it right.”

Right or wrong, there’s nothing the Wolfpack can do about the situation except continue to win.

That’s been the team’s goal since three super seniors — Kayla Jones, Kai Crutchfield and Raina Perez — decided to come back after last year’s Sweet 16 disappointment for one final shot at getting to a Final Four.

“It’s tournament time. Everyone wants to play better for tournament time,” star center Elissa Cunane said after winning MVP honors while leading State to its third straight ACC Tournament title last week. “The next game is not guaranteed. It doesn’t matter what seed you are, so we’ve just got to come out here and play every game like it’s our last.”

No matter where it’s played.