Tar Heel women gear up for NCAA opener
A year ago, the NCAA tournament selection committee left the North Carolina women's basketball team sitting home in March.
The Tar Heels were determined not the let that happen again.
Motivated by last year, North Carolina (28-6) bounced back with a solid regular season that earned it the No. 3 seed in the Bridgeport Regional. The Heels will open against No. 14 seed Albany (27-3) on Sunday.
Delaware (30-3), the No. 6 seed, will take on No. 11 seed West Virginia (17-13) in the opening game Sunday — the first NCAA basketball tournament contest played in the state of Delaware.
North Carolina earned its invitation by increasing its victory total by eight over last season while climbing 75 places to No. 15 in the NCAA RPI rankings this year.
"I think we were motivated throughout the whole season because we didn't make the tournament" last year, said senior guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt. "We played hard from the first game of the season until the last game of the season. We battled through a lot of tough times — from last season and this season. We did learn to work harder. And our leadership is a lot better this season than it was last year."
Still, North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell said the Tar Heels were good enough to be in the tournament last year.
"When you look back on all the injuries we had and the fact that we were still 20-11, I really felt like we should have made it," Hatchell said. "But I don't make that decision. Anything in your life is not what you feel like it should be, you have to try to use in a positive way. So that's what we did.
"We used it to motivate and set some goals. So far, we've had a good year. We want to make it even better."
This is the Heels' 24th NCAA tournament appearance and the fifth time they've been a No. 3 seed. In 1994, North Carolina won the national title after being seeded third in the East Region.
The Heels haven't played since March 10, when they lost to Duke 92-73 in the finals of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. It was their third loss to the Blue Devils this season.
"It was a good break for us," senior Krista Gross said. "It's a long season. We had time to fully recover, get your muscles back."
America East champion Albany is making its second straight appearance in the NCAAs. Last season, the Great Danes fell to Texas A&M 69-47 in the program's first trip to the tournament.
As a third seed last season, Delaware picked up the program's first NCAA tournament victory, 73-43, over host Arkansas-Little Rock. The Hens then lost to Kansas, 70-64, in the second round.
Delaware's players are excited to be making a little more history by hosting an NCAA tournament game for the first time. The three games at the 5,000-seat Bob Carpenter Center were declared a sellout a few weeks ago.
"Hosting something like this is special," Blue Hen coach Tina Martin said. "It doesn't come around all the time. For the state of Delaware, for the community of Newark, it's just a wonderful happening, if you will. We're watching all the games on TV and it's so exciting. To have it here right in our own backyard, it's a treat for our fans."
West Virginia hasn't played since March 9 when it lost to Oklahoma, 65-64, in the Big 12 quarterfinals after leading by 22 in the second half. This is the Mountaineers' ninth NCAA tournament appearance.
"After the Oklahoma game I told them there was a good chance we won't be in the NCAA, so I think they realize this is a second chance," coach Mike Carey said. "The practices went well. I think they're focused and I think they're ready."