by Mike Potter
Duke was hoping for a little more favorable seed, while UNC was hoping for a more favorable site.
But both will be in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament starting on Saturday, two of a half-dozen ACC teams in the field of 64.
The Duke-Martin winner will play at 7 p.m. Monday at Cameron against the survivor of Saturday’s 11:15 a.m. game between No. 7 seed Iowa State (22-10) and No. 10 seed Marist (30-2).
Meanwhile the No. 14 Tar Heels (25-8) are headed to the Spokane Regional as the No. 5 seed, and will take on No. 12 seed Big West champion Fresno State (25-7) in Albuquerque on Saturday at 4:45. UNC is at a true neutral site, as the survivor will take on the winner of the game between No. 4 seed Kentucky (24-8) and No. 13 seed MEAC champion Hampton (26-6).
Fellow ACC members Miami, Florida State, Maryland and Georgia Tech also received expected invitations. Miami will be headed to Charlottesville, Va., where UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell had hoped the Tar Heels would be assigned.
Duke is playing a subregional at home for the second straight season.
“This year continues to be a great journey and it’s funny how people don’t keep up with what’s been going on,” Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. “Obviously we took quite a thumping from Connecticut, but I’ve never been more proud of a team like ours and how we responded the very next game (an 82-58 romp over Miami) — not three games later, but the very next game and then throughout the season.
“We’ve had a terrific season and I’m just excited. This is the most special time of year, and very competitive. It was last year when we hosted. LSU was one of the greatest teams in a second-round game that I’ve ever played against, and if we’re fortunate to take care of Tennessee-Martin and do what we do there, then we’ve got an opportunity to play some fantastic teams in Iowa State or Marist.”
Duke’s senior guard Jasmine Thomas is just hoping to make her first trip to the Final Four.
“Last year we felt pretty good about going in too, with the same kind of setup winning the regular season and the tournament,” Jasmine Thomas said. “You want to say you have momentum, but it all depends on how you prepare and how you play that first game. Once you play that first game you can probably talk about momentum.
“I think my team is a great team. We’ve gotten better and we’ve grown in so many areas. But you can’t let what other people think get to you. This team will only go as far as we motivate ourselves to go. We can’t rely on people to try to fire us up. We’re excited to prove ourselves right.”
Fellow senior, center Krystal Thomas, is also hoping for a long run over the next couple of weeks.
“It’s exciting because we have two games at home provided that we win the first one,” Krystal Thomas said. “With March you just have to take it one game at a time and take the experiences that come, because anything can happen on any given night. There is no guarantee of tomorrow, so we just have to take it and run with it.
“To be so close to a Final Four (last year, losing to Baylor in the regional final) and not to make it there is something you remember forever. So we just have to go out there and get it, and have to work hard the rest of the week in practice and get ready for the games to come.”
Guard Chelsea Gray has been the top scorer in Duke’s highly-touted five-member freshman class, which is of course hoping to do this together four times.
“I’m excited,” Gray said. “I’ve seen Duke in it for many years, but I’m excited for it. We (freshmen) are a close-knit group. We spend a lot of time with each other every day so we get more familiar with each other off the court, and it helps on the court.
“We have a really good camaraderie. Like ‘Coach P’ says, we’re moving up and she considers us sophomores right now. The upperclassmen are doing a great job taking us under their wing and showing us the ropes.”
UNC has won four of its last five games heading into another NCAA run.
“This group is extremely excited to start the tournament and compete for a national championship,” Hatchell said. “I think we’re peaking at the right time. The players have come together down the stretch and they have shown that they are completely focused on the goal of winning a championship, and that starts Saturday against Fresno State.”
UNC senior forward Jessica Breland, who sat out all of last season with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is relishing her final chance at a trip to the Final Four.
“We’re ready to get the tournament started,” Breland said. “Seeing our name up there, it lets you set a roadmap in your mind, so you know who you’re playing and you can start preparing mentally. We don’t know much about Fresno State yet, but we know we’re going to go out there and play how we play, which is to play Carolina basketball."