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It's a place endlessly romanticized for its college basketball history and passionate, tradition-soaked, next-door-neighbor rivalries.
North Carolina's "Triangle" -- Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill -- is the home of NC State, Duke and North Carolina, and has provided a stage for all the famed coaches and players who've passed through or still currently reign in kingdoms with overlapping boundaries.
Lovingly crafted tomes have been written about the Triangle's legends -- in men's basketball. But this season, espnW.com will explore the Triangle hard-court stories in women's basketball.
|Haley Peters and Duke beat Brittany Rountree and North Carolina in last season's ACC tournament title game.|
Welcome to "Total Access: Triangle," our season-long series of in-depth coverage of the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Wolfpack. Two years ago, espnW.com took you behind the scenes at Stanford; last year, we focused on Tennessee.
This season, we turn our gaze toward the state of pine trees and tobacco, of rural farms and global research, of age-old trades and futuristic technology. Just as all those things define the past and present of North Carolina, so does a deep love of basketball. The women's side of Triangle hoops has its own large cast of characters, with interesting narratives we will follow.
All three programs have been to the Women's Final Four: Duke four times, North Carolina three, and NC State once. The Tar Heels have the lone national championship, in 1994.
All three programs are at the geographical heart of the ACC -- a heart that has not relocated despite the vast changes in the league's boundaries, which now extend as far north as Syracuse, N.Y., as far south as Miami, and as far west as South Bend, Ind.
And all three programs have their own, very different storylines this season. Duke is the No. 2-ranked team in the nation in preseason polls, and is coming off of four straight losses in the Elite Eight. The biggest question for Duke in 2013-14 is an annoyingly simple one that the Blue Devils will no doubt tire of hearing, but really can't escape: Can they break through to the Final Four again?
North Carolina has the top-rated freshmen class in the country, but they will have to begin their college careers without Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell on the sidelines, as she battles leukemia.
NC State is starting a new era under Wes Moore, who once worked for the coach more universally beloved than anyone in women's hoops: Kay Yow. The Wolfpack are still trying to find their footing as a program almost five years after Yow's death from cancer, and Moore knows there is a lot of work to do.
|Joanne P. McCallie, who took over in 2007, aims to get Duke back to its first Final Four since 2006.|
DURHAM, N.C. -- Joanne P. McCallie once considered playing for Duke. A native of Maine, then Joanne Palombo, she loved much about the place. But she opted for another brainiac school, Northwestern. This was the early 1980s, and for Triangle women's basketball, McCallie said, "Things were just developing."
In Duke's case, actual development as a national power didn't begin until Gail Goestenkors arrived in 1992. Anyone who now thinks Duke women's basketball was just always able to sell itself as "DUKE" the institution is mistaken. Goestenkors took over a program that shared a pink locker room with the school's field hockey team and had finished above .500 in ACC play only once.
Duke advanced to the postseason twice in the program's first 17 years. The Blue Devils then made the NCAA tournament field 13 times in Goestenkors' 15 seasons, including four Final Four appearances.
In 2007, McCallie was successfully ensconced as Michigan State's coach. She didn't think Duke was a job that would open up during her career. But when it did that spring, as Goestenkors moved to Texas, McCallie came full circle in a way. Once a Duke recruit, she was now recruiting to Duke.
Last month, McCallie sat in Cameron Indoor Stadium, talking about how much being here means to her. She referenced other very strong academic institutions -- giving special props to Stanford and also complimenting ACC newcomer Notre Dame -- that share similar student-athlete aspirations.
"I just feel like it's different, what we're trying to do," McCallie said. "I don't mark myself by anything but this: Can I get the best out of these kids? I'm very competitive, and I love to be successful. But I'm comfortable with who I am."
She is at the point in her career -- and Duke is at the same point as a program -- where there is really just one summit that hasn't been reached: a national championship. She took her Michigan State team to the title game in 2005, where it lost to Baylor. Duke, despite its four Final Four trips, hasn't won the NCAA title.
It's not like this is a terrible position to be in, though. How many programs nationwide would love to trade places with Duke? Most of them. The Blue Devils have made the Elite Eight the past four years in a row under McCallie, who is entering her seventh season here. They are annually very, very good. So what's wrong with that?
Nothing … just that no other program in the NCAA era of women's hoops has lost four consecutive regional finals. That stings. The brisk and expectant knocking on the door has turned into frustrated pounding. Duke's talent level is consistently strong, and yet in the biggest games, the Blue Devils have not closed the deal.
In 2010, it was a young Baylor team that ground out a 51-48 regional final victory against Duke. In 2011, the Blue Devils were mauled 75-40 by Connecticut. In 2012, Stanford sent Duke home 81-69. And in 2013, Notre Dame beat Duke 87-76.
But also consider that in McCallie's six seasons at Duke, the Blue Devils have won or tied for the ACC regular-season title four times, and won the league tournament three times. Duke went 17-1 in the ACC last season, beat North Carolina by 19 points in the ACC tourney final, and then went to the Elite Eight -- despite having lost standout point guard Chelsea Gray to a knee injury on Feb. 17.
Doesn't that speak to the Blue Devils' tenacity? Of course it does. And now Gray -- one of the best players in the nation -- is back for this season. So are four other seniors, junior All-American center Elizabeth Williams, and sophomore guard Alexis Jones, who filled in admirably well for Gray last year.
The Blue Devils have a strong freshman class that should be able to take time to develop. Duke will get a shot at preseason No. 1 Connecticut in Durham on Dec. 17 (ESPN2).
And while the Blue Devils know the Final Four question will linger, they also understand the only process that will get them to that point remains step-by-step.
Senior starter Haley Peters always wanted to go to Duke; her mother went to school here, and her older brother was a walk-on for the Blue Devil men's basketball team. The family dog was named after a former Duke player. This was Peters' dream school. So has her time here been what she expected it to be?
"No," Peters said. "It's very different once you get to the inside of a program, versus what you see when you're watching on TV. It's not better or worse; I just don't know that I had a clear picture of what it would be like. Now I know how it works.
"Once you get into the day-to-day of the work and time you have to put in to get to the level we're at, it's more than people may realize. I think the Final Four is in the back of our minds, when we talk about our goals for the season. But we're all pretty in the moment and focused on 'right now.' Especially as seniors, because you just want time to slow down."
|North Carolina freshman Diamond DeShields was part of the consensus top recruiting class in 2013.|
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Meanwhile, the clock can't move fast enough for Diamond DeShields. She is 18 and ready for the spotlight. Meanwhile, Andrew Calder is 60 and would just as soon stand outside of it.
Diamond, a 6-foot-1 do-it-all guard, is the biggest gem -- pun intended -- of UNC's four blue-chip, true freshmen. Calder is the longtime Tar Heel assistant coach thrust into the lead role this year by head coach Sylvia Hatchell's battle with leukemia.
DeShields, guards Jessica Washington and Allisha Gray, and forward Stephanie Mavunga all decided UNC was a place they could fit in well together. And the rookies have very big dreams.
Obviously, they expected to have Hatchell on the sidelines as they began their college careers.
"Adversity is something you're going to deal with," DeShields said. "It's coming a lot sooner than I thought, but it shows that you never know what might happen. You have to go into every situation ready, prepared and open-minded, willing to do whatever you need."
Plus, if the young Tar Heels haven't figured this out already, they soon will: Calder thinks just like Hatchell does. They've been co-workers for 27 years, and friends even longer than that.
|Andrew Calder has been Sylvia Hatchell's assistant for 27 years.|
Hatchell is from Gastonia, N.C., part of the greater Charlotte metropolitan area. Calder grew up in tiny McBee, S.C., about 36 miles northwest of Florence, S.C., where Hatchell coached at Francis Marion for 11 years and won two national championships.
When she got the North Carolina job in 1986, she called Calder, whom she'd chatted with at various basketball events. They spoke the same language -- and we're not just talking about their similar regional accents. They had long cherished up-tempo basketball and the idea of coaching in Chapel Hill. Now they could combine both.
Hatchell brought Calder aboard with her at UNC. He has never even thought about leaving. Being second-in-command suited his personality, but now he's in charge. He continues reminding people, though, that he's only keeping the seat warm.
"We're still going to play Carolina basketball," he said. "With an aggressive, attacking mentality. Sylvia Hatchell basketball. I'm going to coach the game through her eyes."
Hatchell, who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in September, has a confidence that can't be dented. And she gravitates toward players who are of the same mindset. DeShields says she feels like she was "made for this" in regard to having leadership expectations put on her before she has even played a college game.
Her father played major league baseball, and her mother was a track and field athlete at Tennessee. She knows she is genetically gifted, but that there is plenty to learn. Her favorite WNBA players to watch and study are Maya Moore (UConn) and Seimone Augustus (LSU).
DeShields chose North Carolina because she felt it best suited both who she already was as a player and who she is intent on becoming.
"This is a place where they're not going to restrict you," DeShields said. "Coach Hatchell told us we're going to go fast, and she's going to let us play basketball."
Which undoubtedly sounds perfect to high school superstars. However, one of the knocks on UNC over the years is that Hatchell is too accepting of players doing their own things. That the Tar Heels at times can be -- and have been -- taken apart by more regimented teams of equal or similar talent.
There are no seniors on UNC's roster this season. Sophomore forward Xylina McDaniel is the top returning scorer (11.4 ppg) from last year. So how will this turn out? Can the freshmen have the kind of season they envision? Or will there be too much classic Carolina chaos? Maybe the safest answer is: Somewhere in between.
"There are upperclassmen, and I just got here. There are stripes that have to be earned," DeShields said, although she leaves no doubt that she intends to earn them, pronto. "That comes in practice. That's why every day, I'm trying to be the hardest worker and uplift my teammates."
|Wes Moore took Chattanooga to nine NCAA tournaments before leaving for NC State.|
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Deborah Yow had a fancy dinner coming up, the kind of shindig where athletic directors have to be at the top of their game socially. But before she changed into her formal attire, Yow and senior associate AD Michael Lipitz sat at a table in her office and frankly discussed why it was hard -- but at the same time easy -- to hire Wes Moore as NC State's women's basketball coach.
The difficult part was that Yow felt a nagging compulsion to be sure she hadn't overlooked a female candidate, since all seven previous coaches she'd hired at NC State were men. (Including in three other women's sports.)
The easy part was looking at Moore's 24-year career coaching record -- 558-169 -- and knowing he'd had just one losing season in all that time. That was his first year at Chattanooga in 1998-99, when he went 10-17. He won at least 22 games in 13 of the next 14 years and made nine NCAA tournament appearances.
Moore fit the bill for what the Wolfpack need right now: Someone with a long history of success, a real understanding of how to build (or re-build) a program, and who had a reasonable salary demand. Also, he had worked as an assistant for Kay Yow at NC State from 1993-95.
"His passion for the game has been shown over many years," Deborah Yow said. "He had a proven track record."
Moore actually had interviewed for the Wolfpack job when it opened in the spring of 2009, after Kay Yow's passing. This was while Deborah Yow was still AD at Maryland. Kellie Harper -- the former Tennessee star -- got the position, and brought in a youthful vigor to the Wolfpack.
|Senior forward Kody Burke led the Wolfpack in scoring (13.3 ppg) and rebounding (7.2 rpg) last season.|
But following a legend -- and a tragic, beloved legend at that -- was perhaps even more difficult than Harper expected. Plus, Harper saw Reynolds Coliseum as a major recruiting liability in luring today's bling-fascinated youngsters. Sure, it was a legendary, historic building. It was also so old it had no air conditioning.
Harper was let go after a 17-17 record last season, finishing four years at 70-64. Some thought she wasn't given enough time, but Deborah Yow -- who took over as NC State's AD in 2010 -- felt the program needed another voice.
"I think it was very tough for Kellie -- she was on our staff at Chattanooga for three years, and she's a dear friend and great coach," Moore said. "I was the runner-up to her the last time for this job. But I think that some former players and other people who have really supported this program were fragmented some the last few years, because of the whole transition. It's helped a little bit that I was here before. I think there's been a healing process."
During his interview dinner with Deborah Yow, Moore flat-out asked if she was going to offer him the job. She had to laugh; it was the kind of "let's-just-cut-to-the-chase" question she thought most candidates might think, but not ask.
She reminded him of the obvious: This program was like the child of her late sister, who ran it for more than three decades. This hire was deeply personal for her. But she was also the businesswoman that she had to be as athletic director. She would need to give it more thought.
When she did, she decided Moore was indeed the right choice. He left Chattanooga to enter the Triangle, going from the Southern Conference that he'd typically ruled to the ACC, where he knew he'd be scrambling even to finish in the top eight in a now 15-team league.
"At Chattanooga, we weren't always better at all five spots, and I'm sure that will be the case this year," Moore said realistically of his first Wolfpack team. "Hopefully we can isolate one or two matchups and take advantage of those. We've got five seniors that I hope are hungry and want to be the start of getting NC State women's basketball back to where it has been."
One of those seniors is forward Kody Burke, the Wolfpack's leading scorer last year. NC State has tended to recruit more regionally, but she's an outlier: A native Californian who always wanted to play in the ACC.
"Growing up, I knew about the ACC and its rivalries," Burke said. "That definitely helped bring me out here. And, also, my mom encouraged me to experience life on the other side of the country. She never left Southern California, and she regrets that. She told me to take advantage of the chance. I like the southern hospitality.
"I can honestly say we were all a little hesitant at first when we heard there would be a coaching change. But we hadn't been to the NCAA tournament. So we were OK with a fresh start."
Speaking of freshening, Reynolds will be undergoing a major renovation, too, a project that is largely spearheaded by Lipitz, and will include an athletic hall of fame. (And air conditioning.) It will take a few years, but NC State's administration believes it can create a very appealing modern environment in the old brickhouse.
For Moore, this challenge is welcomed professionally, but also personally. Yow's legacy matters to him. Also, his wife is from North Carolina, and her parents still live there.
"They are getting a little up in age, and she's very close to them," Moore said. "So it's good to be here, nearer to them. And this is a new chapter for me.
"I could have stayed in Chattanooga; we had things on a good roll. Recruiting was going well. I realize this is an uphill climb. But it will be fun trying to get things going again."