For at least the past 15 years, since 1994 when UNC won the NCAA championship, the successes of Triangle women's college basketball programs have approached the level of the men's. There have consistently been one or two teams in the nation's top 10 and capable of making a run at the Final Four.
But for all the victories and first-rate players and coaches since 1994, a new national championship has been elusive for the Triangle women.
Preseason ACC favorite UNC won its first five games and was ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press poll at press time. Coach Sylvia Hatchell has won more than 800 games, but she is still looking for a second national championship. Her biggest question mark is senior forward Jessica Breland, who was preseason All-ACC and was on preseason All-America teams. Breland has suffered from Hodgkin's lymphoma, discovered in the off-season, but she has finished chemotherapy and may begin regular practice soon. Under NCAA rules, Breland may play in as many as nine games up until Jan. 9 before deciding to take a medical redshirt.
The Tar Heels have been playing just fine without her. They have one of the nation's best backcourts in juniors Cetera DeGraffenreid and Italee Lucas, with sophomore She'la White in the mix, while 6-foot-5 sophomore Chay Shegog is a quicker presence in the post after losing 25 pounds. Sophomore Laura Broomfield has ably stepped into Breland's shoes, while freshman wing Tierra Ruffin-Pratt has shown why she was preseason ACC player of the year.
Duke's strength, a relentless pressing defense, helped to win four of its first five games, giving up a tough road loss to Texas A&M. At press time, Duke was ranked No. 11 in the AP poll. Coach Joanne P. McCallie, now in her third season, will look to junior guard Jasmine Thomas, who has been a first among equals for a squad balanced enough to leave opposing coaches scratching their heads. Senior wing Bridgette Mitchell is making the most of her starting assignment, averaging in double figures, as are returning sometime starter Joy Cheek along with 6-foot-4 Krystal Thomas in the post.
Karima Christmas and Keturah Jackson have provided energy, while 6-foot-5 freshman center Allison Vernerey is fitting in seamlessly off the bench.
The tough campaign N.C. State had in 2008-09 as legendary coach Kay Yow succumbed to breast cancer has been well documented. This season, the post-Yow era begins with a young, fresh-faced coach, Kellie Harper, and ambitions of a run at post-season play. State lost only one player, in leading scorer Shayla Fields, and with a couple of key additions and a year's improvement among the returnees, the team is more talented and deeper.
Hard-nosed sophomore forward Bonae Holston made the ACC's all-rookie team and was the conference's sixth player of the year. Through seven games for State (5-2) she has been the team's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. Other early double-figure scorers have been junior wing Amber White, who sat out last season with an Achilles tendon injury, and freshman combo guard Marissa Kastanek.
Guard Nikitta Gartrell and forward Lucy Ellison are the returning starters, while returnees Tia Bell and Brittany Strachan are first in off the bench.
Joli Robinson's N.C. Central Eagles are now in their third season of Division I play and are hoping for double-digit victories for the second straight season. It's been a rocky start so far, however: Central, which started out 0-5, knew injured post player Jori Nwachukwu would be taking a redshirt and has been waiting for multitool sophomore Chasidy Williams to return from a fall illness. Freshman guard Joanna Miller is clearly establishing herself as a go-to player, while sophomore guards Danielle DeBerry and Blaire Houston give NCCU a competitive backcourt. Senior Latoya Bennett is the strongest presence in the paint.