by Mike Potter
BACKYARD BISTRO/RALEIGH Kellie Harper couldn't remember exactly when she had been in such a situation before.
Back when the N.C. State women's basketball coach was a point guard at Tennessee the Lady Vols - who won three NCAA titles during her career - were pretty much in the NCAA Tournament before the season started. Then during her five seasons as head coach at Western Carolina and three seasons as an assistant at Chattanooga before that, Southern Conference teams knew they had to win the conference tournament or they might earn a bid to the WNIT.
But the Wolfpack (20-13) has been on the NCAA "bubble" ever since losing the ACC championship game to Duke eight days ago, although most of the bracketologists had N.C. State in the field.
Harper and her team gathered with about 300 fans on Monday night to watch the Selection Special on ESPN that announced the 64 competing teams.
They got to breathe a sigh of relief when they learned they'd be traveling to Minneapolis to take on UCLA (24-8) in the first round. The Bruins are seeded No. 8 and the Wolfpack No. 9, and the winner of their matchup on Sunday night at 9:30 will play again on Tuesday against the survivor of the other first-round game between Kansas City Region No. 1 seed Nebraska (30-1) and longshot No. 16 seed Northern Iowa (17-15).
"I wanted so bad all season long for this team to go to the NCAA Tournament," said Harper, who has the Wolfpack in the field for the first time since 2007. "It's a thing we talked about when we first met in the locker room, and in the back of my mind that's been the goal for this team. For them to play so well down the stretch and to go out and earn this bid, I'm really excited for them to have this opportunity to be able to come here tonight with fans and see their name on the board, and know that they were rewarded for all their hard work.
"This year our depth has been questioned, our size has been questioned, our athleticism has been questioned, but the one thing they did not take into account was the heart of these players."
The other two Triangle ACC teams also made the field, ending a few days of nail-biting for UNC.
Duke (27-5), which is hosting a sub-regional at Cameron Indoor Stadium, earned the No. 2 seed in the Memphis Regional and will host No. 15 seed MEAC champion Hampton (20-11) on Saturday at around 2:30 p.m. The winner will advance to a March 22 contest against the survivor of the other first-round game between No. 7 seed LSU (20-9) and No. 10 seed Hartford (27-4), a contest that tips off a noon Saturday.
"When we heard that the bid was here and that we would be hosting for this year and next year, obviously tremendous excitement and pride is how we felt about that," said Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie, whose team was upset in the second round last season at Michigan State where she was the former head coach.
"Especially for our fans, and the opportunity to have great women's basketball in the Triangle, so all those things are excellent. But I think that, only now that's it's here, that we can really prepare for it. So off we go. It's an exciting tournament, and to be successful in the tournament, you have to win six games. All you can do is stick with Game One. So we now have our Game One, and then we go from there."
The Tar Heels (19-11) came up on the board early as the No. 10 seed in the Sacramento Region, and will face No. 7 seed Gonzaga (27-4) in Seattle on Saturday night at 10:30. The winner advances to a second-round matchup two days later against the survivor between No. 2 seed Texas A&M (25-7) and Portland State (18-14).
"We're in a little different situation than we are used to being in, but I think our team will step up to the challenge of being an underdog," said UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell, whose team lost on a neutral floor in the second round last season. "Coming out of the ACC, we're used to having to battle game in and game out and I think that has prepared us well for a tournament atmosphere. We're going to start preparing tonight and we can't wait to get to Seattle and start the tournament."
Freshman point guard Marissa Kastanek has been a huge part of N.C. State's success this season, earning ACC rookie of the year honors. Kastanek, who is from Lincoln, Neb., said she has never attended an NCAA Tournament game.
"This is really exciting, because growing up as a little kid you see all the hype about the NCAA Tournament and now I'm going to be a part of it," Kastanek said. "Kellie had described to us the whole season about how we want to play - we may not know we want to play, but we want to play in the NCAA Tournament. Just the experience that it is is so amazing. She really wanted us to experience that, and now we're going to get the opportunity.
"We have to really focus on UCLA first, because if we don't then the Nebraska game will never happen. I have some friends on the team, but right now our main focus is UCLA because we really want to advance as far as we can into the tournament."
State's senior guard Nikitta Gartrell got a taste of NCAA Tournament play three seasons ago, as did redshirt junior guard Amber White.
"I'm excited because I hadn't been in this situation since my freshman year, and to bring my teammates that had never been into an NCAA Tournament it's going to be a great feeling," Gartrell said. "So right now we just need to get focused and do the things we need to do in order to continue to play.
"Hopefully we can have a great run in the NCAA. We just have to stay focused. Right now it's all about excitement and figuring out where you're going and what's going to take place. But we know our coaches are going to give us a great scouting report."
Duke is exactly where it expected to be, and now hopes to advance deeper into the tournament than it has in McCallie's three-year tenure.
Senior Joy Cheek's last run in the tournament begins this weekend.
"I think we have a lot of momentum going into the break and going to the NCAA Tournament winning the ACC Tournament," Cheek said. "Duke hasn't had (an ACC title) in a while, so I think we get a lot of momentum, going into practice, you're really ready. So I think that's what we can work off of."
Blue Devil guard Jasmine Thomas is just hoping to keep everything on an even keel.
"I think the thing that crosses my mind the most is that my family is going to get to come and see the first and second rounds," said Thomas, who is from Northern Virginia. "Other than that, that's about it. It's still just an arena to play, and an opponent that we've got to play. So it's no different to me ... Maybe thinking too much about being home and used to this and you always play here, so it's going to be easy for you. But I think this team's not thinking that way. I think we know the battle we have in store for us."
UNC hasn't missed the NCAA Tournament since 2001, but needed a boost from a Senior Day win over Duke and even had to make sure it beat N.C. Central on Sunday to nail down its spot in the field.
"We're definitely excited to make the tournament," junior point guard Cetera DeGraffenreid said. "It was pretty nerve-racking not knowing if we were in or not. I know my heart was pounding pretty hard, so it was awesome to see that we made it. Seeing some of the teams that we beat getting high seeds gives us a lot of confidence going in to the tournament, so we're excited to keep playing."
The local trio was among six ACC teams to make the field as Florida State is a No. 3 seed, Virginia a No. 5 and Georgia Tech a No. 6.