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High stakes in ACC women's basketball tourney

Topsy-turvy

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UNC's Italee Lucas keeps an eye on the ball during the Tar Heels' recent upset victory over Duke. - PHOTO BY ROB ROWE
  • Photo by Rob Rowe
  • UNC's Italee Lucas keeps an eye on the ball during the Tar Heels' recent upset victory over Duke.

The ACC women's basketball regular season was crazy. Bottom-feeders beat top teams. Teams played home-and-home series with huge point swings, like UNC's 28-point loss at Duke and its 10-point home-court revenge win Sunday. Every few days came a shocking, out-of-context final score.

The 33rd ACC Women's Tournament begins Thursday at Greensboro Coliseum, and one thing is certain. Three of four teams in Saturday's semifinals won't have cut the nets during the event's 10-year Greensboro run. Defending champion Maryland plus UNC (which won four straight from 2005–08) and nominal favorite Duke (which won five straight before that) are in the same three-team quartile, and only one will be alive at supper time Friday.

"We love the tournament," said third-year Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie, whose team has lost the past two finals. "We've played some great basketball in Greensboro, but the balloons have always been for somebody else. It's a bloodbath."

The regular-season champion Blue Devils (24-5) are going to the NCAA Tournament, in which they'll host first- and second-round games March 20--22. But their chances of having a No. 1 seed in the regional again disappeared with that loss at UNC.

Also certainly headed to NCAA play are Florida State (26-4), Virginia (21-8) and Georgia Tech (22-8). Of course, any team, even Clemson (13-17), could make the NCAA Selection Committee's opinions of it moot by cutting down the nets on Sunday. But except for those top four, the rest may have plenty of work to do during the conference tournament.

UNC (18-10), which struggled over the second half of the season, probably completed its case with its win over Duke last Sunday.

"We're going over there to win it," said veteran UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell, whose teams have done that eight times. "The way the league is this year, I don't think it matters where you're seeded. You've just got to be the one that plays the best that day. I hope we're that dangerous Cinderella team this time."

Hoping to impress are resurgent N.C. State (17-12), rebuilding Maryland (18-11) and scrappy Wake Forest (17-12), any of which might be one win away from the NCAA field. Wolfpack coach Kellie Harper, a rookie in the event, has proven she can win not only hearts but games in a big-time conference.

"We have to be very high-energy and very focused," Harper said. "When we accomplish those things we're a good basketball team. When we don't, we struggle. It's a team game, and everybody has to contribute."

Perhaps bound for invites to the expanded 64-team Women's NIT or the new 16-team Women's Basketball Invitational are Miami (17-12), Boston College (15-14) and Virginia Tech (15-14).

The ACC semifinals are at 1 and 3:30 p.m. Saturday, with Sunday's final at 1. All games will be shown on FSN South except Thursday and Friday night sessions, available online at ACC Select.

Morning games draw huge crowds, with buses of youngsters coming in from nearby school systems. With UNC and Duke playing weekday afternoon games, a record attendance seems possible.

"We market heavily toward families, and they're a big part of our attendance," said Nora Lynn Finch, ACC associate commissioner for women's basketball operations. "I said before the season the league would be competitive, and I expected the middle to expand. I didn't know how prophetic I would be."

For complete information on scheduling and results, visit www.theacc.com.

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