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Duke hosting NCAA Tournament games marks its return to elite status in women's basketball

Duke women's basketball guard Celeste Taylor
Mitchell Northam
Duke guard Celeste Taylor plays against North Carolina on Feb. 26, 2023 in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Over the history of college basketball, much attention has been paid by national media and fans across the country to Duke University – especially on the men’s side of the sport.

The Blue Devils are considered to be one of the sport’s “Blue Bloods.” Under the direction of the recently retired Mike Krzyzewski, Duke won five national championships and went to eight other Final Fours. The program has produced countless NBA players, and games at Cameron Indoor Stadium typically attract a sold-out crowd, a broadcasting crew from ESPN and some of the sport’s highest television ratings for a single season – especially when Duke is playing rival North Carolina.

But this weekend, Duke could feel like one of the centers of women’s college basketball.

For the first time since 2017, Duke will host games during the first weekend of the women’s NCAA Tournament.

Duke women's basketball coach Kara Lawson
Mitchell Northam
Duke women's basketball coach Kara Lawson watches her team play against UNC on Feb. 26, 2023 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“To be one of the 16 that is elected to host the first and second rounds, that puts you in a different light,” Duke head coach Kara Lawson said Sunday. “I think it’s just the respect that our team has earned, the respect that was earned through the course of the year… It just speaks to our entire body of work, and I’m really proud of the group for being able to put together this type of season.”

Duke is a No. 3 seed in the tourney, and will face No. 14 Iona on Saturday night. On the other side of Duke’s sub-regional is Middle Tennessee State and Colorado. The winners of Saturday’s games will face off Monday for the chance to go to the Sweet 16 – a stage of the tournament Duke hasn’t been to since 2018.

“I don’t know much about Iona,” Lawson said. “I will be an expert by the game, but I haven’t seen them play. I’m sure they’re going to be a difficult team for us.”

A big difference between the women’s tournament and the men’s is that – while the men play games at predetermined neutral sites across the country – the top 16 seeds on the women’s side get to host games during the first and second rounds in their home buildings. It makes the stakes a bit higher for teams in the regular season, rewards teams that win a lot and schedule hard, and makes it easier for hometown fans to pack their arenas for these big-time games.

In the women’s tournament this weekend, there will be 16 host sites across the country. As usual, the sport’s traditional powers like UConn, South Carolina, and Stanford are hosting again – and those games will likely be well-covered and well-attended. But Duke being a host marks the program’s return to an elite status in the sport under a fairly new head coach.

ESPN's Kelly Gramlich
Mitchell Northam
Kelly Gramlich on the ACC Network set at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro on March 2, 2023.

Kelly Gramlich is a former Clemson basketball player who now works as a broadcaster and analyst for ESPN and the ACC Network. She’s calling games at Duke this weekend.

“I grew up following Duke and they were a huge women’s basketball brand, one of the biggest – if not the biggest – in the ACC for a time with Alana Beard and all the success they were having,” Gramlich told WUNC. “So, to be back on the national scene when they didn't make the tournament last year, of course, is really big. And then, for anybody who knows anything about women's basketball, they know the name Kara Lawson. So, I think that adds just a different level of respect to the Duke name.”

Duke's journey back to the top

Duke enjoyed plenty of success in women’s basketball during the reigns of Gail Goestenkors and Joanne P. McCallie. Goestenkors coached the Blue Devils to four Final Four appearances, and McCallie – her successor – led the Blue Devils to four more Elite Eight appearances. The duo combined for 12 ACC titles.

McCallie reigned during the summer of 2020 with a year remaining on her contract, and Duke lured Lawson – then an assistant with the NBA’s Boston Celtics – to Durham to replace her. This is Lawson’s second full season at the helm of the Blue Devils (her first was canceled five games in due to the pandemic) and she has Duke dancing for the first time in five seasons.

Lawson played in three Final Fours with Tennessee, where she was coached by the legendary Pat Summitt.

“When you think of the tournament, this is a tournament of champions,” Lawson said. “It’s a tournament of teams that have won their league or conference tournament, or teams that have been elite teams in the top conferences in the country. To be one of those teams is an accomplishment.”

This year, the Blue Devils finished second in the ACC regular season standings with a 14-4 conference record. And Duke’s 25 overall wins are the most it has had in a single season since the 2016-17 campaign. The Blue Devils have leaned on defense this year, ranking first in the nation in points-allowed per game with a mark of 50.4.

“This is the first time I’ve been in the NCAA Tournament as a coach. This was one of my goals when I took the job. I knew it would take some time,” Lawson said. “Just really proud of our work over the past three years.”

Playing at home in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament should give the Blue Devils a major advantage. The Blue Devils lost just one home game this year — to UNC.

UNC snubbed from hosting?

Several bracketologists — those are folks working in sports media who project what the NCAA Tournament field is going to look like before its announced — predicted that the Tar Heels would host tournament games too. But the NCAA Selection Committee left UNC outside of the top 16, slating them with a No. 6 seed.

UNC women's basketball head coach Courtney Banghart
Mitchell Northam
UNC women's basketball head coach Courtney Banghart calls out to her team at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 26, 2023.
UNC women's basketball fans
Mitchell Northam
UNC women's basketball fans at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 26, 2023.

Resume-wise, UNC had the 12th toughest schedule in the nation and notched six wins over teams ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll. The Tar Heels went 21-10 overall and 11-7 in ACC play, but three of those ACC losses came when UNC was without two starters – Alyssa Ustby and Eva Hodgson – who are now back in the lineup.

Lisa Peterson, the chair of the NCAA Selection Committee, said it was less about what North Carolina did, and more about what other teams did to jump over the Tar Heels in seeding.

“Certainly how North Carolina is playing now, but it was also what other teams were doing that kind of moved them above North Carolina. They were right on the edge,” Peterson said Sunday during a conference call. “Again, a team that has a lot of injuries in and out of the lineup. So that's just where we put them based on what we know today.”

Had UNC hosted, it really would have made the Triangle as the capital of women’s college basketball this weekend. No two sites anywhere in this tournament would have been closer to each other than Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill and Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham. They’re separated by just a bit more than 10 miles; just a quick drive up U.S. Routes 15 and 501.

UNC and Duke have hosted tournament games in the same season four previous times, but not since 2015.

“I think when you go 11-7 in your league, and you have as many losses overall as UNC did – yes, they played a tough schedule, and yes, they had injuries – but it's just hard, I think, to justify that,” Gramlich said of UNC’s seeding. “So, I kind of understood, but I thought they’d be a No. 5. I did not think they'd be a six.”

Still, the Tar Heels are going to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in Courtney Banghart’s fourth year as head coach.

Banghart was hired at Carolina in 2019 to succeed Sylvia Hatchell, who resigned after an investigation revealed she made "racially insensitive" remarks and exercised "undue influence" on her players to play while injured. Hatchell led the Tar Heels to eight ACC Tournament titles and the program’s lone national championship in 1994.

Banghart – who previously coached at Princeton – had UNC in the Sweet 16 last season for the first time since 2015, where the Tar Heels fell to eventual champion South Carolina. This year, the Tar Heels have been ranked the AP Top 25 Poll all season long and have broken a few attendance records. More than 6,300 people crammed into Carmichael to watch the Tar Heels beat N.C. State on Jan. 15.

“(Getting a top 16 seed) on the women’s side is so important because it gives you a chance to host and play in the comfort of your own arena. It doesn't guarantee victories, we know that – all the teams are good in March,” Banghart said Sunday. “I think we thought it was a real possibility that we would host… And so, I was surprised. But, just excited to get underway.”

The Tar Heels are heading to Columbus, Ohio for the first two rounds of the tournament. They’ll face either St. John’s or Purdue on Saturday at 4 p.m.

Deep field for ACC, N.C. teams

N.C. State women's basketball players Madison Hayes and Jada Boyd
Mitchell Northam
N.C. State women's basketball players Madison Hayes and Jada Boyd celebrate a win over UNC on Feb. 16, 2023 at Reynolds Coliseum.

N.C. State is heading to the NCAA Tournament too but isn’t hosting like it did last year. The Wolfpack, coached by Wes Moore, were slated with a No. 7 seed in the tournament and are heading to Salt Lake City, Utah, where they’ll face No. 10 Princeton in the first round.

N.C. State, UNC and Duke are three of eight ACC squads competing in the tournament this year, which is the most teams any conference has in the tourney field. ACC Tournament champions Virginia Tech received a No. 1 seed.

“I think there was a healthy level of respect to get eight teams in for a league that, to me, was the deepest all year,” Gramlich said of the ACC. “N.C. State is a dangerous (seventh-seed) if Diamond Johnson is healthy.”

Other women’s teams that call North Carolina home are competing in March Madness, too. East Carolina is in the NCAA Tournament for just the third time in program history after winning the American Athletic Conference, and Gardner-Webb – based in Boiling Springs – is going to the tournament for the second time ever after winning the Big South Conference Tournament.

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.