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No. 3 Wolfpack headline ACC women’s tournament

By Aaron Beard

AP Basketball Writer

Third-ranked North Carolina State is the reigning Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament champion, the league’s highest-ranked women’s team and winner of the season’s only game with fifth-ranked Louisville.

Yet as the ACC Tournament opens this week, the Louisville Cardinals and not the Wolfpack hold the No. 1 seed. It’s a byproduct of scheduling challenges from playing a season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which led the league to sort standings on win percentage with teams playing different numbers of games amid postponements and cancellations.

That favored the Cardinals (21-2, 14-2 ACC), who won 87.5% of games compared to the Wolfpack (17-2, 12-2) at 85.7% — even after N.C. State took the only meeting 74-60 on Feb. 1 for one of its two road wins against No. 1-ranked teams this year.

Regardless of the order, the two are the headliners in a tournament with no other ranked teams and multiple programs still trying to improve NCAA Tournament chances.

Wes Moore’s Wolfpack won the program’s first tournament title since 1991 last year, the program’s fifth overall. N.C. State enters this tournament chasing back-to-back titles for the first time in its history.

“Somebody said, ‘Well, does that put more pressure because you won it last year?’ I don’t really think so,” Moore said. “In fact, I think it could work in the reverse: at least we know we can do it.”

Jeff Walz’s Cardinals claimed the top seed for the third time in four seasons and has won at least a share of the regular-season crown in all four of those years. Louisville is chasing the program’s second tournament title, the other coming in 2018.

“To be 21-2, I think we have done an outstanding job — these young ladies have done an outstanding job — of putting themselves in a great place for the NCAA Tournament,” Walz said after Sunday’s win against Notre Dame.

Some other things to know about this week’s ACC Tournament in Greensboro:

JACKETS’ RISE: Third-seeded Georgia Tech opens play in Friday’s last of four quarterfinals after a strong second regular season under Nell Fortner. The Yellow Jackets (14-7, 12-6) tied a program record for league wins to finish as the top team behind the Cardinals and Wolfpack.

“I don’t think anybody looks at going into this weekend that there’s a big gap,” Fortner said.

WYCKOFF’S POSTSEASON: Fourth-seeded Florida State (10-7, 9-7) is playing under interim coach Brooke Wyckoff, who has led the program while longtime coach Sue Semrau stepped away before the season to care for her mother as she recovered from ovarian cancer.

“We’re in contact quite a bit but … to her credit, she has given me so much space just to be me and to lead this program the way I feel it needs to be led,” Wyckoff said of Semrau.

ACC HONORS: Louisville senior guard Dana Evans has repeated as Atlantic Coast Conference women’s player of the year, the fourth consecutive season a Cardinal has earned the honor.

Evans’ selection by the league’s 15 head coaches and Blue Ribbon Panel marks the program’s fifth in six seasons, following Asia Durr in 2018 and 2019 and Myisha Hines-Allen in 2016. Louisville also matched Duke (2000-05) for the longest streak in league history.

League coaches chose North Carolina State’s Wes Moore as coach of the year and Notre Dame forward Maddy Westbeld as freshman of the year. The Blue Ribbon Panel named Georgia Tech’s Nell Fortner as coach of the year and Syracuse center Kamilla Cardoso as the best freshman.

League coaches voted Georgia Tech senior forward Lorela Cubaj and Cardoso as co-defensive players of the year. N.C. State forward Jada Boyd and Syracuse guard/forward Emily Engstler shared sixth player honors.

Georgia Tech junior guard Lotta-Maj Lahtinen was named most improved player.

Both groups’ All-ACC first teams included Evans; Cubaj; N.C. State’s Jakia Brown-Turner and Elissa Cunane; Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley and Aisha Sheppard; and Wake Forest’s Ivana Raca.

BUBBLE WATCH: ESPN’s latest projections have the league with eight NCAA teams entering the week, including No. 5 seed Syracuse, No. 6 seed Notre Dame, No. 7 seed Virginia Tech and No. 8 seed North Carolina.

The Tar Heels (13-9, 8-9, No. 32 NET) have won five of six to solidify their standing under second-year coach Courtney Banghart. They open against ninth-seeded Wake Forest (No. 51 NET), which is on the bubble in pursuing its second-ever NCAA bid.

Tenth-seeded Miami (No. 72 NET) is also trying to stay alive for a bid.

IVEY’S DEBUT: This will be the first postseason tournament as a head coach for Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey, who took over for Muffet McGraw after last season. But Ivey knows the ACC Tournament well after working as an assistant under McGraw for the Fighting Irish’s move into the ACC for the 2013-14 season.

Ivey was part of four straight ACC Tournament titles from 2014-17, then another in 2019.

RECONFIGURED: The ACC Tournament has just 13 teams after Duke and Virginia opted not to continue their seasons. That has reduced the number of games in Wednesday’s first round to one, matching 12th-seeded Pittsburgh and 13th-seeded Boston College.

The tournament will also have limited fans after Gov. Roy Cooper eased public-gathering restrictions last week, permitting indoor venues of more than 5,000 to admit up to 15% of capacity.

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