ACC vaults into prominence

A conference that has fallen short in the past is the first to put three teams in the Final Four.

Published April 2, 2006

BOSTON - For all its storied tradition in men's basketball, the ACC's women entered this year's NCAA Tournament with one national championship in their history and just two teams reaching the Final Four in the previous six years.

It's all the more incredible, then, that the ACC has made such a statement this season and especially this weekend, becoming the first conference to send three teams to a women's Final Four.

"We want to welcome Pokey Chatman and LSU to the ACC tournament, Part 2," Maryland coach Brenda Frese joked Saturday. "We want to extend an invitation out. We'd love to have them come join our league if they'd like to be a part of it."

The most impressive thing about North Carolina (33-1), Duke (30-3) and Maryland (32-4) is that seven of their eight losses have come against each other. Their combined record against the rest of college basketball is 88-1, and they credit the competition among them for why they all are still playing.

"We make each other better," said UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell, who won the league's only national title in 1994. "I think the women have really put the ACC on the map this year."

See, the ACC's men were all gone after last weekend, leaving the league to better appreciate what its women's teams have accomplished. As recently as 2004, Duke had dominated the league, winning 51 consecutive conference games, but coach Gail Goestenkors saw last season that the rest of the league was catching up, and quickly.

"Carolina was nipping at our heels, but we had beaten them 12 straight times going into last year," said Goestenkors, whose team has now lost five straight to the Tar Heels. "I knew going into this year this would be the best year for our conference, clearly."

You can make a case for the ACC being the dominant conference in the nation, with the top league ranking in the RPI ratings and a winning record this season in head-to-head games with the Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and Southeastern conferences.

What the three teams share, as much as their ACC ties, is a fast-paced, up-and-down style of play. Duke, Maryland and UNC rank 1-2-3 in the nation in scoring, the only three NCAA teams averaging more than 80 points. Against an LSU team ranked fifth in scoring defense, it's a chance to show where the women's game might be headed.

"It's always been a running conference," said Goestenkors, who came to Duke after coaching at Purdue. "It's a much more exciting game. The fans like it, the players like it, and we're seeing much more of it."

Tonight's first semifinal, which tips off at 7 on ESPN, has UNC facing Maryland, the only team to beat the Tar Heels. If Duke eliminates LSU in the late game, it will guarantee a national title for the ACC.

"All season long, everyone had talked about Maryland, Duke and Carolina as three of the top teams in the country, but you didn't know how it was going to play out," said Frese, who went 10-18 in 2002-03 in her first season as Terrapins coach. "Now I think it really validates the three teams and the conference."

Duke will lose seniors Monique Currie and Mistie Williams, but the three teams in Boston combine for six underclassmen who earned first- or second-team All-ACC honors, suggesting next season could bring more of the same postseason dominance. Hatchell also reminds that Boston College, a No.8 seed, knocked off top-seeded Ohio State in the second round, so next season's conference success could trump this run.

"I'm telling you, the ACC women might be better next year," Hatchell said. "I know you think, "How can it be better?' but I think a lot of the teams are going to be even better."