N.C. State women’s basketball thoroughly enjoyed its run at the top of the ACC the past three seasons, winning a lot of games, stuffing its trophy case, earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and leaving a lot of opposing teams muttering about the Wolfpack’s imposing size and skill.
A year ago, the Pack was 32-4, never lost consecutive games, went 17-1 in the ACC and picked up a third straight ACC championship. Such was the good life.
This season? It has been payback time, according to Wolfpack coach Wes Moore.
The No. 11 Pack (13-4, 3-3 ACC), losing four starters off last year’s team, has absorbed a few “butt-kickings,” as Moore called them. The most recent: a 91-72 road loss Thursday at Florida State.
The Wolfpack could not slow the Seminoles, who were beaten 84-54 the last time the two teams played — in the 2022 ACC Tournament in Greensboro.
“Everybody wants us. Everybody wants to kick our butt because of what we’ve done the last three or four years,” Moore said during his postgame radio interview on the Wolfpack Sports Network.
That includes North Carolina. And the new challenger: Duke.
The No. 16 Blue Devils handed the Pack a 72-58 beating at Reynolds Coliseum on Dec. 29 and has moved to 15-1 overall and 5-0 in the ACC after stopping Clemson 66-56 Thursday in Durham.
The No. 22 Tar Heels (11-5, 2-3) get their first shot at the Pack on Sunday when N.C. State goes to Carmichael Arena for a 3:30 p.m. game that has been circled since the 2022-23 ACC schedule was released.
“The story more is just about how great the rivalry is in women’s basketball,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “So many rivalries that we know are men’s basketball and football. The Duke, N.C. State and Carolina rivalry is really good for women’s basketball. So that’s probably the story more so than you know, how one game is gonna go. I think both of our teams are beyond that.”
UNC ended a four-game losing streak and picked up its first ACC win last Sunday, beating No. 4 Notre Dame 60-50 in Chapel Hill, then followed by riding a strong fourth-quarter surge Thursday to a comeback win at Virginia.
Virginia had not lost at home this season and held a nine-point lead midway through the fourth, but the Tar Heels outscored the Cavaliers 28-8 in the period for the 70-59 win.
Banghart said Carolina is in a position where winning the next game is more important that beating a rival.
“The really good programs don’t go hang their hat or or cry over one game,” Banghart said. “When I first got here, we beat, I can’t remember it might have been N.C. State, someone really good and we weren’t great. And I remember after that game saying, I can’t wait to where we’re at the level where one game doesn’t make us and one game doesn’t break us.”
No ACC coach has been louder publicly or more biting in challenging the Wolfpack than Banghart. She raised eyebrows with a couple of her comments last season — calling N.C. State’s historic Reynolds Coliseum a “small gym” and Wolfpack fans “so classless” in comments Banghart had to later walk back.
“I carelessly used the word ‘classless’ in reference to the passionate fans of N.C. State and I deeply regret my word choice. it doesn’t accurately depict my feelings,” Banghart said in a statement released by UNC.
Moore shrugged off that stuff as the Pack won twice — 72-45 at Reynolds and 66-58 at Carmichael. Both teams later reached regional semifinals in the NCAAs, the Pack losing a double-overtime thriller against Connecticut and UNC ousted by South Carolina — the 2022 NCAA champion — in finishing 25-7 for the season.
With the Pack losing program staples Elissa Cunane, Kai Crutchfield and Raina Perez, some slippage was expected this season as new players filled new roles. It also appeared to be an opening for North Carolina to move past N.C. State in the national rankings and in the ACC women’s power structure.
But both teams have been inconsistent this season, mixing good games with bad.
UNC impressively won a pair of games in the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, Oregon, beating Oregon and Iowa State, but then took a big loss at Indiana in ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Tar Heels’ recent four-game skid included ACC losses to FSU, Virginia Tech and Miami before beating Notre Dame.
“We just have to work on — and we will moving forward — just having that same mentality for all games, whether they’re ranked, whether they’re at the bottom of ACC, whether at the top, just having that same mentality throughout whoever we play,” UNC guard Deja Kelly said. “It’s like whoever we play, we’re coming in to hunt you. We’re coming to punch first. “
N.C. State suffered a 91-69 loss at UConn in late November — an early reality check for the Wolfpack. But the Pack rebounded by winning its next seven games, beating then-No. 10 Iowa on the road in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and winning its ACC opener against Clemson.
Then came the Duke debacle at Reynolds, the Blue Devils hitting nine 3-pointers and going 15-15 at the foul line.
“Nobody is going to feel sorry for us in this league,” Moore said after the game. “We’ve got to understand we’re going to see everybody’s ‘A’ game.”
The Wolfpack got it last week from Boston College, which also won in Reynolds, taking a 79-71 victory. Wolfpack guard Diamond Johnson, who had missed some time with an injury, was back for the BC game, scoring 18 points, but BC was the better team in the second half.
The Pack was better defensively in a 25-point win over Virginia at Reynolds this past Sunday, then porous against FSU. With dynamic freshman guard Ta’Niya Latson scoring 31 points, the ‘Noles ignited for 28 points in the first quarter and 31 in the third.
One concern for N.C. State for Sunday’s game at UNC is the health of senior Jada Boyd, who left the FSU game with an injury. Boyd is the Pack’s second-leading scorer at 10 points per game — Johnson the top scorer at 13.7.
Duke plays at Georgia Tech on Sunday, then goes to Chapel Hill on Thursday for its first matchup with the Tar Heels.
Duke coach Kara Lawson was asked Thursday about the Blue Devils not gaining a lot of national attention, saying Duke was “not chasing a poll or an accolade.”
“We’re chasing winning,” Lawson said. “When you’re chasing winning, you’re just focused on that. … Will a little number beside our name help us win a game? I’ve never seen a little number beside your name score a point. So, the focus is winning.”
C.L. Brown contributed to this report.