With the ongoing prominence of the Triangle's ACC men's basketball programs, it often gets ignored that some of the best women's basketball in the country is played right here.
Yes, there has been only one NCAA women's title, that coming when Charlotte Smith's buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave UNC a 60-59 win over Louisiana Tech for the 1994 championship.
But other runs at the national championship have come up just short. Duke has appeared in four Final Fours and two NCAA title games, while UNC has made two other trips to Final Fours and N.C. State one.
The last time a North Carolina team made the NCAA semifinals was in 2007. But does anyone from the Research Triangle have a chance to make a long run in the big dance this season?
My sources say yes.
All three teams are off to solid starts and all have plenty of room for optimism.
DUKE was ranked No. 8 nationally the first week of the season. The Blue Devils did have heavy graduation losses in guard Jasmine Thomas, wing Karima Christmas and center Krystal Thomas, all of whom were picked in the WNBA Draft and are now playing professionally.
But the Blue Devils have more young talent than any team in the nation. The nucleus is made up of the five sophomores—forwards Haley Peters and Richa Jackson and guards Chelsea Gray, Chloe Wells and Tricia Liston—who made up the nation's top recruiting class last season.
Add in this year's top recruiting class—the No. 1 recruit center Elizabeth Williams, forward Amber Henson (whose brother John plays at UNC) and guard Ka'lia Johnson—and Duke should have a chance to go very far if the chemistry develops well.
"I think a variety of people are going to step up," fifth-year Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "Chelsea has already established herself as a game-winner. Chloe has come back incredibly strong. Haley has been known to make huge plays. This team has got a lot of different weapons who can step in and hit game-winners. And Tricia is one of the best shooters I've ever seen in the game."
UNC finished second to the Blue Devils in the ACC Tournament last season and also had big graduation losses in post Jessica Breland—most recently with the WNBA's Connecticut Sun—and guards Italee Lucas and Cetera DeGraffenreid, who seemed as if they had been in the lineup since women played with six players on a team.
But the Tar Heels came into the season ranked No. 19, again with a solid nucleus and a talented group of freshmen. The stalwarts in the paint are mobile center Chay Shegog and shot-blocking forward Laura Broomfield, although with 6'-6' Waltiea Rolle out on maternity leave, UNC definitely lacks depth up front.
Veteran coach Sylvia Hatchell points out how all the Tar Heels' freshmen—redshirt guard Shannon Smith along with true freshman guards Danielle Butts, Megan Buckland, Brittany Rountree and Whitney Adams—all played on state high school championship teams as seniors.
"The good thing is that all of them ended their seasons with a win," Hatchell said. "And that mentality is big. It's major. I've had some really talented players before who did not have that mentality because they weren't in programs like that. When you've won state championships you have the work ethic and expect to win. They just need some time to get better."
Third-year coach Kellie Harper is putting her stamp on the N.C. STATE program, although the Wolfpack missed out on a postseason bid last year primarily because of a shaky December.
State, which was picked to finish seventh in the ACC, has a solid nucleus in steady senior forward Bonae Holston, fiery junior guard Marissa Kastanek and suddenly sleek sophomore post Kody Burke. The Wolfpack also boasts a freshman class that makes the young coach smile, in guards Erica Donovan and Krystal Barrett and forwards Kiana Evans and Therany Dunnigan.
"It's very important that we're better sooner than we were last year," Harper said. "And I really like this team. They have an attitude and a mentality that gets me very excited. It's like they have something to prove, so they come to work every day. I don't have to motivate effort at all and I get to coach for execution."
And local fans will get a treat come NCAA Tournament time, as games in the first four rounds will be played in the Triangle.
UNC will host first- and second-round games March 17 and 19 at Carmichael Arena, and the rules say the Tar Heels must play at home if they make the tournament. And the Raleigh Regional will be played at the RBC Center on March 25 and 27, with the Wolfpack likely to be bracketed in the group heading to its home city.