NC State’s women’s basketball team accomplished one of the two goals that has eluded it these past two seasons by winning the outright ACC regular season championship. It clinched the title with a 68-66 victory at Virginia Tech on Sunday.
The next bit of unfinished business, getting past the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, is still to come.
First, though, there’s the matter of defending the ACC Tournament crown the third-ranked Wolfpack won in both 2019 and ’20.
Despite having been there and done that twice already, coach Wes Moore isn’t worried about his top-seeded team taking this tournament — which begins on Wednesday at Greensboro Coliseum — for granted by looking ahead to the next one.
“If anything, it’s an advantage that our players have had success,” Moore said. “They know our routine when we get over there and how we’re going to prepare for each game.
“I think they go over there realizing it’s all about the process. We’ve got momentum. We’re playing pretty well, so we want to keep that going.”
Moore said there was a point in late January and early February that he was concerned his team might have gotten complacent waiting for March to arrive. But that’s changed over the past few weeks during State’s current seven-game winning streak.
“I’ve seen more focus and preparation, so I’m not worried about that,” he said. “I’m just worried about these great teams that we’re fixing to have to face three days in a row, hopefully. That’s what your goal is. But you know it’s going to be really tough every day out.”
That’s not just typical coachspeak.
While the Wolfpack and second-seeded Louisville — the nation’s fourth-ranked team — are the clear favorites to make it to Sunday’s championship game, their road to the finals is anything but smooth.
Four other conference teams are included in The Associated Press top 25 this week. Third-seeded Notre Dame is No. 20, fourth-seeded North Carolina is No. 16 and fifth-seeded Virginia Tech is No. 21.
The Tar Heels (23-5, 13-5) benefitted from rival State’s win Sunday, a result that, combined with their regular season-ending victory against Duke, leapfrogged them past the Hokies for the fourth and final double bye in the tournament.
The top four seeds automatically advance into Friday’s semifinals.
State (26-3, 17-1 ACC) will begin play against the winner of Thursday’s 8-9 game between Boston College and Florida State. UNC (23-5, 13-5) will face the survivor from a bracket that includes the Hokies, 12th-seeded Syracuse and No. 13 Clemson.
The two other state teams will help get the tournament started with opening round games on Wednesday, with 10th-seeded Duke taking on 13th-seeded Pittsburgh at 3:30 p.m. and 11th-seeded Wake Forest matched against No. 14 Virginia at 6 p.m.
Unlike the rival Wolfpack, who were the preseason favorite to win the ACC and have been ranked in the top 10 from start to finish, coach Courtney Banghart’s Tar Heels have been one of the league’s biggest surprises.
That is, to everyone other than Banghart and her players.
“I remember I said at ACC media day (in October) that we were better than people expected,” Banghart said. “People didn’t know our grad transfers, didn’t know the commitment in the offseason that our roster had made or the size of our most experienced player Jaelynn Murray’s heart. So I think we’ve proven ourselves week after week.”
Having already beaten Louisville this season, UNC enters the tournament with realistic hopes of bringing home the championship trophy for the first time since 2008. But even if it doesn’t, a strong showing could earn it a host spot for the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
For Duke and Wake Forest, the goal in Greensboro is to win enough games just to get into the NCAA bracket.
At 16-12 overall (7-11 ACC) the Blue Devils stand the better chance. But it’s still enough of a longshot that coach Kara Lawson isn’t even thinking about it.
“We’re just trying to win the first game, then if we’re fortunate enough to do so we’ll try to win the next one,” she said.
“It’s a new opportunity for everybody. All 15 teams in the tournament have a chance to do that. We’re one of them and we’ve got a chance to try and get a win. That’s the way we’re looking at it.”
Wake Forest (14-15, 4-14) will likely need more than just a win or even two to extend its season past this weekend. Coach Jen Hoover’s team, however, has a history of tournament surprises, including an upset win against UNC last year that earned it a surprise NCAA bid.
“The Deacons have been known to go to Greensboro and put some magic together,” Hoover said. “But this is a different squad. They know that. They know there’s a lot of expectations of the past and what (those teams) have been able to do. It really comes down to your focus and your execution. You have to lock in one game at a time.”