What the No. 5 Blue Devils (24-4) and the other three ranked teams — No. 6 Maryland (25-4), No. 7 Miami (25-4) and No. 15 Georgia Tech (22-7) have going for them is that they’ll have first-round byes in the event, which will hold its championship game with the automatic NCAA Tournament bid on the line at 2 p.m. Sunday.
“We’re just excited to play,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “Obviously it’s a different thing waiting for two teams to play against each other, so we’ve got to work on some things we’ve been working on getting ready for the tournament.”
The tournament opens with four games today. UNC (19-10) will square off with Clemson (6-21) in the 11 a.m. opener, with the winner playing again Friday at 11 against Georgia Tech. Both of those games will be played in front of thousands of Guilford county schoolchildren admitted at a discount rate.
The Tar Heels may need to win today to assure themselves a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve had a tough schedule, but we’re 19-10 and 9-7 in the league,” said UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell, whose team had its most puzzling loss when it dropped a 52-47 home-court defeat to the Tigers on Jan. 12. “We had doubles with Duke and Maryland and Miami and Virginia and N.C. State and we’ve battled hard through a lot of injuries. And the kids have been tough. You fight through adversity and it makes you tougher. It’s tournament time and anything can happen.
“Clemson beat us earlier in the year and anybody can win at any time. We’re just excited that all those schoolkids will be there. It’s a great environment when you play that early game.”
N.C. State (16-14) will take on Florida State (14-16) today at 3, with the winner advancing to meet Duke at the same time on Friday.
State probably would need to make Sunday's final for an at-large NCAA berth.
“We’re excited about going back over there and have a chance to start with a 0-0 record,” said Wolfpack coach Kellie Harper, whose team was victim to a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in a heartbreaking 67-64 home-court loss to FSU on Jan. 27.
“We’re looking forward to competing in one of the premier tournaments in the country. Florida State is a tough matchup. They have size on the interior and they have several players that can put points on the board. Hopefully we can go over to Greensboro and enjoy that background and maybe shoot the ball a little better.”
Wake Forest (17-12) faces Virginia Tech (7-22) tonight at 6 p.m. with the winner facing Miami on Friday at 6. And Virginia (21-9) faces Boston College (7-22) in tonight’s nightcap around 8 p.m., with that winner advancing to Friday’s 8 p.m. contest against Maryland.
All three Triangle teams had key players receive post-season honors this week. Duke had the best ones, as freshman center Elizabeth Williams made first-team all-ACC, was rookie of the year and defensive player of the year.
Teammates Chelsea Gray also made first-team all-conference while Haley Peters made the third team.
“Elizabeth is extraordinary - nothing would surprise me about what Elizabeth Williams can accomplish,” McCallie said. “She’s one of the most balanced, unique, hard-working and coachable people I’ve ever been around. She loves to make the team better and she loves to get better herself.”
UNC’s Chay Shegog was named second-team All-ACC while guard Brittany Rountree was on the all-freshman team. Senior forward Laura Broomfield was honorable mention All-ACC.
For N.C. State, Bonae Holston was third-team All-ACC while Marissa Kastanek received honorable mention. Wake Forest’s Lakevia Boykin, a graduate of Southeast Raleigh High, also got honorable mention.