Duke’s Kara Lawson and North Carolina’s Courtney Banghart have spent their short tenures building programs back to national relevance. North Carolina State’s Wes Moore is leading the three-time reigning Atlantic Coast Conference champion.
All of them are in the same area code.
This always-competitive market looks tougher than usual with the Blue Devils’ rising to No. 9, marking the second time since 2000 that all three have cracked the top 10 of the AP Top 25 in the same season.
Each team appears headed for the NCAA Tournament with at least the chance to play their way to hosting opening-round games; the first glimpse of where teams stand will come Thursday with the NCAA’s reveal of its preliminary top-16 seeds.
”If everybody is hitting on all cylinders,” Lawson said. ”I think all three of these schools are hard to beat.”
North Carolina’s Triangle region includes Durham, home to Duke; Chapel Hill with 14th-ranked UNC; and Raleigh with 22nd-ranked N.C. State. Separated by no more than a 30-minute drive, the schools have accounted for 24 of 45 ACC titles, eight Final Fours and an NCAA title (UNC in 1994).
It’s been common to see two playing at a high level, but this is the first time since 2014 where all three reached the top 10 in the same season. No other state has had three different women’s programs do that this year.
”It just adds a little spice to everything, being so close, the history and all,” Moore said. ”It’s great for the fans, and tough for the coaches sometimes.”
Moore is in his 10th season with the Wolfpack (16-7, 6-6 ACC), who reached last year’s NCAA Elite Eight. N.C. State peaked at No. 6 in December – its fifth straight season with a top-10 ranking – and even amid a January slide beat then-No. 7 Notre Dame.
Banghart is in her fourth season with the Tar Heels (17-6, 8-4), which reached last year’s Sweet 16 after stacking multiple strong recruiting classes. UNC spent five weeks in this season’s top 10, its first since 2015, and peaked at sixth.
Lawson is in Year 3 with a program that last reached the NCAAs in 2018.
”Listen, we’ve been bringing up the rear for a couple of years here,” she said. ”What I’ve focused on is just getting our program up to a level of competitiveness and being able to put ourselves in position to compete with the elite programs.”
Her staff has reshaped the roster through the transfer portal to lift the Blue Devils (20-3, 10-2) to the top of the ACC standings. Sunday’s first-ever win at Notre Dame secured Duke’s first top-10 ranking since 2017.
”It’s kind of what I envisioned coming to this program, just bringing it back to where it needs to be and helping to get that foundation and that start of a new culture – just bringing Duke back to the top,” said Celeste Taylor, who transferred in two years ago from Texas.
”It’s obviously really cool to break into the top 10 and be recognized for some of the things that we’ve been doing and the hard work we’ve put in. . But we still have a third of conference play left.”
That includes head-to-head matchups. UNC beat Duke and N.C. State at home in January, while the Blue Devils beat the Wolfpack on the road in late December. UNC visits N.C. State on Feb. 16 while Duke closes at home against the Wolfpack (Feb. 23) and the Tar Heels (Feb. 26).
It illustrates why Banghart has long sold the region’s tradition in recruiting, noting: ”You can drive 30 minutes on any Thursday night and you’re going to see a really good basketball team.”
It’s particularly true this year.
”I’ve been saying this a long time,” Banghart said. ”Women’s basketball, all we need is a chance. And once you lay your eyes on it, you want to come back. So to have ranked teams, (fans) can see ranked games, which means you get more ranked home games, with familiar opponents- there’s no way that’s not good for growing our game.”
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap
AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25