KANSAS CITY, Mo. — North Carolina State coach Wes Moore remembers hearing where his Wolfpack, fresh off a second-round trip to the NCAA Tournament, were picked to finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season.
He thought the voters had read the instructions wrong.
“Maybe,” Moore mused, “they thought that was a national poll they were voting on.”
Would have made more sense.
Fast-forward to mid-March and the fourth-seeded Wolfpack (26-8) are preparing to face top-seeded Mississippi State in the Sweet 16. They’ve already run roughshod over Princeton and Maryland to reach Kansas City, and are just two wins away from their first Final Four appearance since 1998. That national semifinal happened to be in Kansas City, too.
“I believed all along we could be better than what we started out, and where people picked us,” Moore said. “Even my athletic director, when I had my meeting before this season, she asked me my goals and expectations. After I shared those with her she said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty ambitious, isn’t it?'”
There were times this season when Moore walked to the end of the bench and told Debbie Yow, herself a longtime college basketball coach and the sister of former North Carolina State coach Kay Yow, and said, “You might have been right.”
“But this team battles,” Moore said. “We were down 26-1 to Louisville and with three minutes left in the game we were down four and had the ball. So they’re not going to quit. They are going to be in there, keep competing, and that’s what I’m really proud of in regards to this team.”
They’ll have their hands full with Mississippi State.
The national runners-up a season ago, the Bulldogs (34-1) have already matched last year’s school record for wins in a season. They’re in a regional semifinal for a third consecutive year, featuring a starting lineup of four seniors and a junior who have plenty of experience on this stage.
“We believed the whole season that we could be sitting in this spot,” NC State’s Akela Maize said. “There was never any doubt in our minds with the strengths that we have in each player.”
The winner Friday night advances to the regional final on Saturday, where they will face second-seeded UCLA (26-7) or No. 3 seed Texas (28-6) for a spot in the Final Four in Columbus, Ohio.
“When we did lose our first one, people thought the sky was falling,” said Bulldogs coach Vic Schaefer, recalling a 62-51 loss to South Carolina in the SEC Tournament, which was also a rematch of last year’s national title game. “I guess it’s better than the alternative, but that’s the expectation we kind of have right now. It’s a lot of fun, sure is.”
As the Kansas City regional gets ready to tip off, here are some things to know:
The Bulldogs’ Roshunda Johnson missed Thursday’s workouts in Kansas City after the death of her grandfather, though she is expected to be available for the game. “We miss her and love her very much,” Schaefer said, “and we’re keeping her in our hearts and minds.”
HITTING THE GLASS
North Carolina State has dominated two categories all season that could play into its game against Mississippi State: free throws and rebounding. The Wolfpack have made more free throws (489) than opponents have tried (481), and they are eighth nationally in rebounding.
Texas and UCLA already met this season, although it didn’t actually count. The two teams played in closed preseason scrimmages in recent years.
“We are both very different,” Texas coach Karen Aston said, “but there are aspects that you could say, ‘These are reminders of who they are.’ On scrimmages you don’t spend a lot of time on scouting, but there is some familiarity.”
FAMILIAR FOES, PART 2
The Longhorns and Bruins have split six meetings overall and their two NCAA Tournament meetings, though Texas came out ahead most recently. The Longhorns knocked the Bruins out in the same round of the 2016 tournament.
There are plenty of big names descending on Kansas City. In the opener, the senior backcourt of Brooke McCarty and Ariel Takins will lead Texas against All-Pac 12 guard Jordin Canada, who has scored at least 20 points in six of the Bruins’ last eight games. In the second game, Mississippi State’s inside-outside tandem of Teaira McCowan and Victoria Vivians will match up with the Wolfpack’s own inside-outside duo, Maize and Kiara Leslie.