North Carolina’s stay in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament was a short one.
The state sent five teams to March Madness, tying the most ever from North Carolina. However, for the first time since the 2017 tournament, the state did not send a representative into the Sweet 16.
Three teams were one-and-done in the Big Dance, while another two fell short in the second round. Here’s a roundup of the short March in the Old North State.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs went undefeated in the Big South and won the conference tournament to earn their second NCAA Tournament bid in school history and first since 2011. Gardner-Webb is still awaiting its first win in the tourney, however. G-W received a 15th seed and lost to No. 2 Utah in Salt Lake City, 103-78. That ended the Runnin’ Bulldogs season at 29-5.
“I told the team in the locker room, ‘One game can’t define the historic season that we’ve had,’” said coach Alex Simmons. “So hopefully they’ll keep their head high and learn from this and move on.”
The Pirates won their first American Conference Tournament in school history, sweeping to the title as a No. 3 seed and earning their first NCAA bid since 2007 and just the third in school history. ECU, like Gardner-Webb, is still awaiting its first March Madness win. The Pirates received a No. 13 seed and traveled to Austin to face No. 4 Texas. The Longhorns cruised to a 79-40 win, sending ECU home with a 23-10 record.
“I’m so, so proud of my team,” said coach Kim McNeill. “We’ve had an unbelievable season. We did a lot of firsts: Finished third, the highest we ever finished in the American League. We won the tournament, first time ever happening. We won 23 games, the most since 2010. I couldn’t be more proud of this team. We fought all year long and we fought a lot of adversity, and we are going to make this a place that’s familiar to us.”
The Wolfpack entered with a streak of four straight Sweet 16 appearances, but that was snapped, as was the five-tournament streak of making the second round. The Pack received a 7th seed and faced No. 10 Princeton in Salt Lake City. State lost an eight-point lead with 5:44 remaining and saw Princeton hit a game-winning 3-pointer with four seconds left to send the Wolfpack home with a heartbreaking loss, ending the season with a 20-12 mark.
Now NC State needs to reload after losing a group of seniors who were part of ACC championship teams.
“I hate it that it ended this way and that I couldn’t help them at least take another step to see where it led us,” said coach Wes Moore. “We have to start looking at our roster and how we want to try to rebuild that.”
The Tar Heels received a No. 6 seed and were sent to Columbus, Ohio. It wasn’t easy, but UNC earned the 50th NCAA win in program history over No. 11 St. John’s in the first round. The Heels led by as many as 12 but held off a fierce St. John’s rally to notch a 61-59 win. That earned Carolina a matchup with the host team, No. 3 Ohio State. The roles were reversed from the opening game as UNC fell behind by 12 points in the fourth quarter but then went on a run to tie the score. The Buckeyes hit a game-winner with 1.8 seconds left, however, preventing the Heels from posting back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances with a 71-69 loss.
UNC expects to return most of its core players next year, leading to optimism in Chapel Hill that the Tar Heels will improve on their 22-11 record.
“You think about what you’re going to give me,” said coach Courtney Banghart. “What is it March? April, May, June, July, August, September, give me six months with these guys to get ’em better? I like that. I think these guys, they’re really gym hungry. They have got to do some work on their bodies to get healthy and ready to go. But, yeah, I’m excited because I know they will get better.”
The Blue Devils returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018 and were the only area team to host after receiving a No. 3 seed. Duke opened with an 89-49 blowout of No. 14 Iona and faced No. 6 Colorado with a berth in the Sweet 16 at stake. Duke fell behind early, 15-2, then battled back and forced overtime. The Blue Devils managed just three points in the extra period, however, falling 61-53 to finish the year at 26-7.
Duke will now wait to see which members of their senior class use their fifth COVID year to return.
“I think we’ve established ourselves as a team that’s going to compete and can compete against anybody in the country, and hopefully we can do that again next year,” said coach Kara Lawson.