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Meet the 3 North Carolina teams playing in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament

 N.C. State's Elissa Cunane challenges a shot by UNC's Alexandra Zelaya on Jan. 30, 2022 at UNC's Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill.
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
N.C. State's Elissa Cunane challenges a shot by UNC's Alexandra Zelaya on Jan. 30, 2022 at UNC's Carmichael Arena in Chapel Hill.

This is what Eva Hodgson came to UNC-Chapel Hill for.

On Sunday night, Hodgson and her eager Tar Heel teammates gathered at Top Of The Hill Restaurant & Brewery in Chapel Hill to watch the selection show for the NCAA Tournament. This is Hodgson’s third season of college basketball and she transferred to UNC after spending two seasons at William & Mary. But her teams there were never quite good enough to earn a bid into the Big Dance.

This year, Hodgson was part of a squad that finally was. The Tar Heels finished with a 23-6 record and have been ranked in the AP Top 25 Poll for weeks. She knew she was going to get to play in the NCAA Tournament. The question was, where? And against who?

ESPN finally flashed it on the screen: UNC will head to Tucson, Arizona, as a No. 5 seed and face No. 12 Stephen F. Austin. Hodgson and her teammates jumped, cheered, high-fived and waved Carolina-blue pom-poms.

“It feels incredible,” Hodgson said. “I’ve never been. I’m just excited to be a part of it. It’s crazy, honestly. We’re a five-seed in a tournament I’ve been watching since I was a kid. It’s kind of surreal to me. And the fact that we get to do it with a team that has so much fun when we play.”

The Tar Heels aren’t the only team from North Carolina that will be playing in the NCAA women’s tournament though. Joining them will be N.C. State, one of the tournament’s top seeds, and Charlotte.

Let’s take a closer look at the women who will be featured in the madness of March:

  • Seed: No. 1 in the Bridgeport Region
  • Coach: Wes Moore (9th season)
  • Top Player: Elissa Cunane (13.8 points per-game)
  • First Game: Saturday, March 19 at 2 p.m. vs. Longwood/Mount St. Mary’s

 N.C. State head coach Wes Moore talks with Diamond Johnson during the 2022 ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
N.C. State head coach Wes Moore talks with Diamond Johnson during the 2022 ACC Tournament in Greensboro, N.C.

The Wolfpack are a No. 1 seed in the tournament for a second straight year, and they’re aiming to make their first Final Four since 1998. N.C. State blazed through the ACC – losing just one regular season game in conference play – and then stormed through ACC tournament in Greensboro for their third straight conference championship.

It’s somewhat of a make-or-break year for N.C. State, as four of its starters – Elissa Cunane, Kai Crutchfield, Raina Perez and Kayla Jones – won’t be back next season. Crutchfield, Perez and Jones have exhausted their eligibility and Cunane has indicated that she’ll enter the WNBA Draft, where she’s expected to be a first round pick. Before then, Cunane would like to go out with a championship.

The path getting to the Final Four won’t be easy, as N.C. State has UConn, Indiana and Notre Dame in its region. Should the Wolfpack face UConn in the Elite Eight, the Huskies will likely have an advantage as they’ll be playing less than 85 miles from their campus in Storrs, Connecticut. If that matchup happens, N.C. State will have to overcome a crowd largely rooting against it, and the Huskies’ talent on the court.

First up for the Wolfpack will either be Longwood or Mount St. Mary’s, whichever one comes out on top in a First Four game on Thursday. And this weekend, the Wolfpack gets to play all of their games at home in Reynolds Coliseum.

  • Seed: No. 5 in the Greensboro Region
  • Coach: Courtney Banghart (3rd season)
  • Top Player: Deja Kelly (15.9 points per-game)
  • First Game: Saturday, March 19 at 7:30 p.m. vs. Stephen F. Austin

 North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Courtney Banghart watches from the sidelines as her Tar Heels host N.C. State on Jan. 30, 2022 in Carmichael Arena.
Mitchell Northam
/
WUNC
North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Courtney Banghart watches from the sidelines as her Tar Heels host N.C. State on Jan. 30, 2022 in Carmichael Arena.

The Tar Heels had a brief stay at the ACC tournament in Greensboro two weeks ago, falling in overtime in the quarterfinals to Virginia Tech. But their goal is to get back to Greensboro, where they hope to play in front of somewhat of a hometown crowd in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds.

First up though is a trip to Tucson, Arizona, where the Tar Heels will face 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks won the Southland Conference for an automatic bid to the tournament. Should the Tar Heels beat them, they’ll face the winner of UNLV and Arizona, the latter of which was last year’s national championship runner-up.

And should UNC win both of its games in Arizona, No. 1 South Carolina will likely be waiting for them in Greensboro. The Tar Heels last played the Gamecocks in a closed-door scrimmage this past preseason. But the Tar Heels are tougher than their resume gives them credit for; they’ve lost to just four teams all year, and their fast-paced small-ball style of play can be a matchup nightmare for some teams. No. 5 is the highest North Carolina has been seeded since 2015 – which was also the last time it made the Sweet 16.

“If you look at the bracket and you know you’re not going to host – which was obviously disappointing – to know that, by the Sweet 16, if you can win two games, you have an opportunity to come back home, that’s the second-best thing you can get,” Banghart said.

  • Seed: No. 14 seed in the Bridgeport Region
  • Coach: Cara Consuegra (11th season)
  • Top Player: Octavia Jett-Wilson (19.1 points per-game)
  • First Game: Saturday, March 19 at 1:30 p.m. vs. Indiana

North Texas guard Jazion Jackson (4) defends as Charlotte guard Mikayla Boykin (12) shoot during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Conference USA women's tournament in Frisco, Texas, Friday, March 11, 2022.
Tony Gutierrez
/
AP
North Texas guard Jazion Jackson (4) defends as Charlotte guard Mikayla Boykin (12) shoot during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals of the Conference USA women's tournament in Frisco, Texas, Friday, March 11, 2022.

This is Charlotte’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2009. The 49ers received an automatic bid to the tournament after winning Conference USA’s regular season and tournament titles. The 49ers started off the season a bit bumpy, beginning it with a 1-4 record, but then blazed through its CUSA slate with a 15-3 mark.

Defense has been Charlotte’s calling-card this season, as they’ve held opponents to a 24.4% shooting clip from three-point range, which is fourth-best in the country. Charlotte also ranks 16th nationally in blocked shots.

In addition to Jett-Wilson’s scoring abilities, the 49ers have also been powered by Mikayla Boykin, a native of Clinton, N.C., who transferred to Charlotte after spending time at Duke. Boykin is averaging 13.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists per-game. The 49ers will face their toughest opponent of the season in their first-round game, taking on No. 3 Indiana. The Hoosiers played in the Big Ten title game this season and kept things close in a matchup with N.C. State in December.

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Mitchell Northam