Notre Dame threatens Triangle dominance at women's ACC Tournament
Posted March 4
Updated March 5
Greensboro, N.C. — Historically speaking, the three Triangle schools dominate Atlantic Coast Conference women’s basketball, as they do men’s basketball. Triangle teams have won the big prize 21 times in 36 years.
Duke has won three of the last four ACC Tournament championships, making the finals in five of the last six.
North Carolina dueled Duke for the championship trophy last season, and won four consecutive titles between 2005 and 2008.
NC State last won the tournament in 1991, but has been a frequent finalist, including in 2007 and 2010.
Maryland has won the most tournament titles, but hoisted eight of its 10 championship banners in the 70s and 80s.
Success in the ACC Women’s Tournament in March typically corresponds with success during the ACC regular season games of January and February. And this season ranks as one of the five best for the three Triangle schools collectively. UNC, NC State, and Duke have all won at least ten games for the first time since 2007. The only other seasons where all three schools hit double figures in conference wins include 1995, 1998 and 2005.
And yet, Notre Dame lurks.
The undefeated, nationally second-ranked Irish have cast a rather large shadow in their first season of ACC play, plowing through 16 conference games without a loss and thrashing all three Triangle schools by double digits. Notre Dame could emerge from this week’s festivities in Greensboro as the most dominant team in the history of ACC women’s basketball.
But undefeated ACC Tournament champions have become a rare thing in this league, and no school outside the Triangle has ever rolled into the NCAA Tournament without a single conference loss. Only NC State (1980), Duke (2002 and 2003) and North Carolina (2008) have accomplished this feat.
Maryland, twice an interloper on Triangle dominance in the new millennium, also appears poised to make its last ACC Tournament a memorable affair. But for the Terps to replicate their championships of 2009 and 2012, they’ll have to get through North Carolina, Duke and, of course, Notre Dame.
Twelve ACC wins for Duke, 11 for NC State and 10 for Carolina in most years would suggest one of those three will cut down the nets Sunday at the Greensboro Coliseum. But their outstanding regular season play notwithstanding, all three schools face obstacles this weekend beyond Maryland and Notre Dame.
UNC faces toughest road through ACC Tournament
North Carolina must overcome the variances of youth. Acting Coach Andrew Calder says at this point, “They’re not freshmen anymore.” That said, the Tar Heels have shown an equal ability to ride unstoppable hot streaks to victory against top teams or to succumb to the doldrums of cold shooting against lesser opponents. They can be brilliant, inconsistently so.
Of the three Triangle schools, North Carolina probably faces the most difficult road because the Tar Heels, should they survive as expected Thursday, face a formidable foe in Maryland Friday. Carolina rides the dynamic play of freshman superstar Diamond DeShields, along with the 42 percent three-point shooting of Allisha Gray and the inside power of Stephanie Mavunga and Xylina McDaniel. But Maryland still has the great Alyssa Thomas, who is averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists per game. Maryland shoots 49 percent and gets offensive rebounds on 42 percent of its misses, so the Terrapins are a very difficult team on which to get defensive stops. Carolina found some soft spots in Maryland’s middle-of-the-road defense during January’s meeting, won 79-70 by the Terps.
The Tar Heels will need another breakout game offensively from DeShields and Gray, and tough board work by Mavunga and McDaniel in order to have a chance to play on the weekend.
State looks to keep surprising
NC State, under new coach Wes Moore, has pulled off the season’s biggest surprise, clinching a fourth place spot in the standings with a team picked to finish no higher than 10th.
Moore inherited experience, but two of those veteran players have been lost to injury: guard Myisha Goodwin-Coleman and forward Lakeesa Daniel can now only watch as a thinner Wolfpack squad tries to create some tournament magic. Moore notes, “We are glad that we get the double bye.” As the fourth seed, State has Thursday off and won’t play until Friday.
NC State defeated Syracuse 67-61 during the regular season, and if the seeds hold would meet the Orange on Friday.
Syracuse will bring a healthy squad to Greensboro, including Raleigh natives Bria and Briana Day. However, Syracuse doesn’t shoot well (just 38 percent), and that doesn’t bode well against a team that rebounds as well as State.
Losses to injury sting Devils
Duke has been knocking on the door of a trip to the NCAA Final Four since its acclaimed senior class signed on four years ago.
But this week’s Duke is not January’s Duke. To quote coach Joanne McCallie, “There is no precedent for the losses we’ve had, especially at the guard position.” The Blue Devils suffered devastating injuries to backcourt stars Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones, both among the best players in the country. Duke still has senior sharpshooter Tricia Liston, but she must now dribble against pressure defenses and make passes to open post players, as well as providing most of Duke’s offense from the perimeter.
The Blue Devils' Friday matchup could be deceptively difficult, not just because of the injuries, but because of likely opponent Georgia Tech’s talented duo of Ty Marshall and Kaela Davis. Yellowjacket coach MaChelle Joseph directed her squad to the ACC title game in 2012 and certainly knows Duke’s personnel well. Duke won 64-47 in the first meeting this year, but will need good ball handling against the GT pressure, along with a strong game from Elizabeth Williams and Haley Peters inside to lighten some of the load on Liston outside.
Could Triangle trio dominate Saturday semis?
Saturday’s semifinals could see all three Triangle teams still alive and vying for a shot at the title game.
State faces a tall order against the powerful Irish. Notre Dame has such great balance with the fabulous Natalie Achonwa dominating the interior while Kayla McBride and Jewell Loyd attack from outside. Notre Dame shoots better than 50 percent as a team, hits 77 percent of its free throws and wins conference games by an average of 23 points per game. But again, going undefeated during the regular season and winning the tournament is a difficult double. The great Dawn Staley Virginia team of 1991 went 14-0, only to lose to Clemson in the ACC Tournament semifinals.
The other semifinal could bring a matchup involving UNC, Duke or both. A rematch of last Sunday’s Blue Devil-Tar Heel affair would give Duke a chance at redemption and fit in nicely with the theme of the day, since the two men’s programs will take center stage Saturday at 9 p.m. in their regular-season finale.
But the question is whether sixth seed Carolina, having to begin its tournament play Thursday, will have enough left in the tank for the weekend; not to mention whether Duke can reinvent itself quickly enough to overcome Georgia Tech and Maryland or UNC.
The numbers scream pretty loudly that Notre Dame ousts the Wolfpack in the semis and will win it all come Sunday, and that Maryland, with two-time player of the year Thomas, also has a shot.
But history suggests we don’t count out the Triangle teams, especially when they’re playing well.