5 NC teams to compete in women’s NCAA Tournament

The Triangle’s three schools, along with East Carolina and Gardner-Webb, earned bids

East Carolina coach Kim McNeill, center, and the Pirates will look to extend their storybook season when they face fourth-seeded Texas iin Austin on Saturday. (Tony Gutierrez / AP Photo)

North Carolina will be well-represented in the NCAA women’s tournament field of 64 with five schools — Duke, UNC, NC State, ECU and Gardner-Webb — all having a shot to continue their postseasons in the Big Dance starting this weekend.

The Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Wolfpack are three of a nation-leading eight ACC teams selected, while the Pirates and Runnin’ Bulldogs each received automatic berths from recent championship wins in the AAC and Big South tournaments, respectively.

NC State and Gardner-Webb play their first games Friday, while Duke, UNC and ECU will play on Saturday.

A Devilish host

In the Seattle Region 4, the No. 3 Blue Devils (25-6) will host No. 14 Iona (26-6) at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday at 9:30 p.m.

A Duke victory would set up a second-round matchup in Durham against either No. 6 Colorado (23-8) or No. 11 Middle Tennessee (28-4). It’s the Blue Devils’ 25th appearance all-time in the women’s NCAA Tournament but coach Kara Lawson’s first. Duke last reached the tournament in 2018.

Finishing second in the ACC at the end of the regular season, the Blue Devils lost to Virginia Tech (27-4) in the semifinal round of the conference tournament in Greensboro. They excelled on the defensive side of the ball this season, ranking second nationally in scoring defense as they limited their opponents to just 50.8 points per game.

Entering March Madness on a hot streak, Iona recently claimed its first MAAC tournament championship since 2016.

Prognosis: Duke could very well go further than any other N.C. team in the tournament.

Heels hope for magic

In their 30th appearance in the tournament, the Tar Heels (21-10) received the sixth seed in Seattle Region 3 and will face the play-in winner of No. 11 seeds Purdue (19-10) and St. John’s (22-8) in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday at 4 p.m.

UNC was projected by some pundits to receive a higher seed — and possibly host the opening rounds — but the Tar Heels still earned their third straight trip under coach Courtney Banghart, and will look to bounce back from a loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament.

Junior guard Deja Kelly leads the Heels with 16.2 points per game and was a key component in her team notching six wins against teams ranked within the NCAA NET’s Top 20: Notre Dame (8), Duke (10) twice, Iowa State (13), NC State (17) and Oregon (19).

If the Tar Heels advance, they face a difficult road to the Final Four in a region that includes Virginia Tech (27-4) and UConn (29-5) squads.

Prognosis: A Sweet 16 appearance seems likely for UNC, but it could get murky beyond that.

Wolfpack uncertainty

Sent to Greenville Region 2, No. 7 NC State (20-11) has a first-round matchup against 10th-seeded Princeton (23-5) in Salt Lake City on Friday at 10 p.m. Historically, 7-10 matchups are notoriously hard to predict, and the Wolfpack’s upcoming game against the Tigers is no different.

Although State’s leading scorer Diamond Johnson has been sidelined since Feb. 16 with an ankle injury, coach Wes Moore had indicated that she could be back for the NCAA Tournament.

The Wolfpack’s sixth straight trip to the tournament (and 28th in program history) comes at the end of an up-and-down 2022-23 campaign in which the team was ranked as high as No. 6 in The Associated Press poll but dropped out after losing three of four games.

Led by Ivy League Player of the Year and junior guard Kaitlyn Chen, the Tigers are riding the momentum of an Ivy League Tournament championship, while NC State is hoping not to lose its fourth out of six games.

Prognosis: NC State will do an admirable job to make it to the second round of play.

Walking the plank

It’s been quite a journey for East Carolina, which was picked to finish last by the AAC coaches in their preseason poll. But conference Coach of the Year Kim McNeill and her Pirates went out and won their first conference championship since 2007 while recording the most wins they’ve had in a season since 2009-10.

Now in the NCAA Tournament for just the third time ever, No. 13 ECU (23-9) will have its hands full in a matchup versus No. 4 Texas (25-9) in Austin, Texas, on Saturday at 10 p.m. in Seattle Region 4.

The Longhorns lost the Big 12 Conference tournament championship but host the first and second rounds in the Moody Center, where they went 14-2 this season.

While a Pirates victory would be an upset from every metric, ECU’s roster has blossomed into a balanced unit featuring Danae McNeal — the AAC’s Most Improved Player and the Defensive Player of the Year — and Rookie of the Year Amiya Joyner.

Prognosis: ECU will need to carry every ounce of its conference tournament momentum to advance past Texas.

Runnin’ toward a miracle

Gardner-Webb has put together a heralded season that culminated in an undefeated run through the Big South Conference as well as the team’s first NCAA berth since 2011.

Hoping to pull off an upset for its first-ever NCAA tournament win, No. 15 Gardner-Webb (29-4) will be hosted by No. 2 Utah (25-4) in Salt Lake City on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Greenville Region 2.

Coach Alex Simmons and her Bulldogs are riding a 21-game winning streak thanks to a dominant starting lineup. Four of the team’s starters earned All-Big South honors in 2023, including Big South Player of the Year and Tournament MVP Jhessyka Williams, who is only three points away from becoming the second-leading scorer in team history.

Meanwhile, the Utes are emerging from their season with a share of the Pac-12 regular season title and a thirst for retribution after falling short to Washington State (21-10) in their conference tournament.

Prognosis: Gardner-Webb is likely to have a tough time against the talented Utes.