Women's Basketball: North Carolina Tar Heels
ESPN analyst Debbie Antonelli breaks down the games of a member from each of the teams in espnW.com's Total Access series on Duke, North Carolina and NC State.
Diamond DeShields, North Carolina
Antonelli explains why North Carolina's Diamond DeShields is the most talented freshman in the country.
Markeisha Gatling, NC State
Antonelli discusses why NC State's Markeisha Gatling is one of the hardest players to defend in the post.
Tricia Liston, Duke
Debbie Antonelli details what makes Tricia Liston so effective in Duke’s offense.
If you are a women's basketball fan, there are some names you've likely heard a lot, but you might not have seen the players yet. Monday, you'll have the chance.
North Carolina hosts Tennessee (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 9 p.m. ET; Stanford plays UConn at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and WatchESPN) in a game that will be an early showcase for some of the top freshmen this season.
The Tar Heels’ Diamond DeShields, Stephanie Mavunga, Allisha Gray and Jessica Washington comprised what was generally ranked the No. 1 recruiting class this year. North Carolina also has two redshirt freshmen, Hillary Fuller (foot) and Hillary Summers (knee), who sat out last season with injury issues.
Meanwhile, Tennessee’s much-heralded Mercedes Russell and Jordan Reynolds will be in action for the Lady Vols. Redshirt freshman Andraya Carter, who played in seven games last season before being sidelined by shoulder surgery, will be facing North Carolina for the second time in her college career. Tennessee’s 102-57 victory over the Tar Heels on Dec. 2, 2012, was Carter’s last game before redshirting.
Both sets of rookies already have been in action this season. Tennessee opened on the road Friday, beating Middle Tennessee 67-57. Russell, a 6-foot-6 center, had 11 points and seven rebounds in her debut. Carter had 10 points and four rebounds; Reynolds didn't score but had two rebounds. All three of them came off the bench, as Tennessee has a more experienced lineup than does North Carolina.
For the Tar Heels, the freshmen are going to have to immediately step into some key roles. In UNC's 87-26 shellacking of Air Force on Friday, Mavunga started her Tar Heel career with a double-double: 16 points and 13 rebounds. DeShields had 16 points; she and Mavunga were in the starting lineup, along with sophomore Xylina McDaniel, and juniors Brittany Rountree and Latifah Coleman.
Gray (13 points), Washington (seven), Summers (five), and Fuller (three) all came off the bench.
While Tennessee was tested in its opener at Middle Tennessee, North Carolina will face its first formidable competition in the Lady Vols. It should be an interesting look at both the present and the future for both squads.
Last year, Georgia Tech came achingly close to being the first team since Clemson in 1999 to break up the Duke/North Carolina/Maryland monopoly on winning the ACC women’s basketball tournament.
This year, is there anyone outside those three that can actually take home the trophy from Greensboro, N.C.? Probably not.
It looks like there will be five ACC teams in the NCAA tournament: Duke, UNC, Maryland, Florida State and Miami. The only road into the Big Dance for the other seven teams -- which all have losing records in the league -- is by winning the tournament and automatic bid, which seems extremely unlikely.
So then what is at stake in Greensboro? Florida State and Miami, both 11-7 in ACC play, would like to bolster their NCAA résumés a bit with at least one more win. North Carolina, the No. 3 seed, wouldn’t mind another shot at top-seeded Duke, which beat the Tar Heels twice in the regular season.
And Maryland, which has won more ACC tournament titles than any program (10) will try to add to that total as the school’s time in the league nears an end. No matter how geographically and traditionally illogical it is, the Terrapins will be moving to the Big Ten. That’s expected to be in 2014.
The Terps held off Georgia Tech 68-65 in last season’s championship game. Despite injuries and graduation taking such a toll on the Terps this year, they’ve still earned the No. 2 seed.
“I’m obviously very proud of our team in terms of how we've battled through the adversity this season,” Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. “Never using injuries as an excuse, just really playing to get better. Obviously [with] the play of Tianna Hawkins and Alyssa Thomas, we've been fortunate.”
The Terps lost twice to Duke -- the first time when the Blue Devils still had point guard Chelsea Gray, and the second after Gray had suffered a season-ending knee injury. Maryland also lost at North Carolina in early January, and at Florida State on Feb. 28.
That win was much-needed by the fourth-seeded Seminoles, who’ve been inconsistent. They have victories over the Terps and Tar Heels in their last eight games, but also losses to NC State, Virginia Tech, and Virginia. The Hokies are the last-place team in the ACC.
So what gives with the Seminoles’ highs and lows?
“I don't know exactly why that is,” Florida State coach Sue Semrau said. “But at the same time, I know that we're capable of a lot. That's a mystery to me and to my staff. Maybe it plays in a little bit to human nature.
“Certainly having five seniors going into the ACC tournament, this being their last chance at it, I think the excitement level is high.”
North Carolina’s program has nine ACC tournament titles, but the last was in 2008. That one was the fourth straight league tourney title for the Tar Heels, who’ve been pretty steady this ACC season. Their only ACC losses were the two to Duke, plus at Maryland, and at Florida State.
“These kids have really worked hard, and we are very balanced,” UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “Our seniors have done a great job. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt is not really a point guard, but we've played her at point guard and she's accepted that role and just done a fabulous job for us. And I'm just so proud of her because this is the first time she's been healthy since she's been here at UNC.”
Ruffin-Pratt leads the Tar Heels at 14.8 points per game. Meanwhile, UNC’s Xylina McDaniel was named ACC freshman of the year; she averages 12.4 points and 7.2 rebounds.
Ultimately, though, this still seems like Duke’s tournament to win, despite the loss of Gray -- who was having an All-American season -- on Feb. 17 when she was hurt against Wake Forest.
The Blue Devils’ only ACC loss came at Miami on Feb. 28 to a Hurricanes team that really needed that win for their NCAA tournament hopes.
Duke has won the ACC tournament title seven times, two of those with Joanne P. McCallie as coach. The Blue Devils are hosting the NCAA tournament’s early rounds this year, and they seem pretty secure as an NCAA No. 2 seed regardless of what happens in Greensboro.
Of course, Duke would like another ACC trophy. But McCallie is looking at more the big picture for both the Blue Devils and the ACC. As in, getting a team to the Final Four. The last ACC team to make it that far was North Carolina in 2007; McCallie took her Michigan State team out of the Big Ten that far in 2005.
“The days of talking about the ACC and the Final Four are past days, not more the current ones,” McCallie said. “So I think it's extremely important that we get teams to the Final Four and the biggest stage.”
How they play in Greensboro might help in that process for the Blue Devils.