With seeds determined, an opponent selected and a travel site chosen, Duke women’s basketball coach Joanne P. McCallie pushed aside all of the uncertainties on Monday night and begin the business of preparing for an NCAA tournament championship.
“Let’s go,” she said. “Let’s get after it. Let’s celebrate who we are. Let’s be a great team.”
The sixth-ranked Blue Devils (24-5) earned a No. 2 seed in the Fresno Regional and head to Nashville, Tenn., to face No. 15 seed Samford in the first round on Sunday. They earned their 18th consecutive trip to the tournament and must go win on the road at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium.
Meanwhile, North Carolina and N.C. State were not chosen by the NCAA tournament selection committee for the field of 64 teams. Neither will have a chance to make a run to this season’s Final Four in Denver on April 1-3.
Headed into the tournament, undefeated Baylor is the overall No.1 seed in the Des Moines Regional. The Bears have won 34 straight and are led by 6-foot-8 sophomore center Brittney Griner, an All-American who will likely collect player of the year honors.
Stanford (31-1) is the top seed in the Fresno Regional and Connecticut (29-4) is the top seed in the Kingston Regional, while Notre Dame (30-3) is the top seed in the Raleigh Regional to be held at PNC Arena on March 25-27.
Four ACC teams earned tournament bids, including Duke, No. 2 seed Maryland, No. 3 seed Miami, No. 4 seed Georgia Tech.
Conference teams were plagued by injuries this season, with 10 squads losing at least one player to a season-ending injury.
“It’s been a year of the injury for the ACC,” ACC Associate Commissioner Nora Lynn Finch said. “But I’ll put our four against anybody’s four in a heart beat.”
North Carolina (20-11) will miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001.
The Tar Heels, who fell from the national rankings midway through the season, arrived at Monday’s tournament announcement with an outside shot of making the field. The Tar Heels carried a RPI of 89 – calculated by the NCAA – along with a strength of schedule ranked 88th by RealTimeRPI.
“Obviously we are disappointed to not receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament,” North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “I felt like our performance against an extremely difficult ACC schedule and how we were playing in the last few weeks of the season would be enough to get us in, but unfortunately that's not how it worked out.”
Losses to Penn State and South Carolina were compounded by an 86-35 loss to No. 3 Connecticut and conference losses to Clemson, Maryland, Duke and Georgia Tech.
A 65-63 victory over No. 12 Miami on Jan. 12 was considered the Tar Heels’ signature win this season.
“Bottom line: Is their body of work good enough this year?” ESPN analyst Debbie Antonelli said. “Maybe not. Do they pass the eyeball test the last few weeks? Absolutely. Absolutely they are one of the top 64 teams in our game by the eyeball test. But which one is the committee going to weigh more?”
North Carolina supporters were hoping the selection committee would take a rash of injuries – a few season-ending – into consideration.
The Tar Heels were without forward Tierra Ruffin-Pratt until January when she returned from off-season shoulder surgery. Junior center Waltiea Rolle gave birth to her daughter in November and returned two months later. A rash of other injuries – including anterior cruciate ligament tears – derailed any chemistry the team tried to create.
“I am most disappointed for our seniors, that they won't get a chance to fulfill their goal of having an opportunity to play for a national championship,” Hatchell said. “They have fought hard all year in the face of all kinds of injuries and adversity and it's a shame that they aren't getting rewarded for that hard work.”
N.C. State will miss the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season. The Wolfpack will likely participate in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament and after the field is announced and could be back on the court as early as Wednesday.
The Pack (18-15) turned its season around at the ACC tournament, upsetting higher-seeded teams Florida State and Duke on its way to a surprise run to the semifinals. Earlier season losses to Creighton, Northwestern and Richmond may have cost coach Kellie Harper’s squad a chance in the selection committee’s final consideration for the NCAA tournament.
Before the NCAA tournament field was announced, Harper declined to lobby for her team’s selection, saying any post-season experience was welcomed for a group with four freshman and four sophomores.
“I think these kids need to experience post season play,” Harper said after her team fell to Georgia Tech in ACC tournament. “It’s different. And you need to experience it. It will be, obviously, for this team, there is still something out there they can accomplish. Also for our young kids it gives them some post season experience. I think that’s huge for our program.”
Duke lost to N.C. State 75-72 in the ACC tournament’s quarterfinals after going 15-1 during the regular season and clinching the regular season conference title for the 11th time in school history.
The Blue Devils are searching for their first NCAA tournament championship.
McCallie said she loves the feeling of starting anew – even if her team was overlooked to play near home in the first and second rounds at Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill.
“That’s what makes it so much fun,” she said. “You create your own future. You fight. You battle. You create another day. Nothing is given to you.”