Good Sport: The caste system in the ACC women’s tourney

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Wake Forest’s Milan Quinn and Boston College’s Rachel Gartner fight for possession of the ball in the tournament opener. (photo by Jennifer Laughlin Badger)

by Jeff Laughlin

The ACC Women’s tourney had a small — and rare — shake-up on Thursday night. Wake Forest upset Syracuse in an all-around rough week for the Orange athletics program.

It stood as the only exciting upset in a status-quo tournament.

Wake tried their best to continue the thread in a tough loss to Duke in the third round, but Duke’s double-bye status left Wake with reduced stamina and not enough talent.

For some perspective, Duke is a Top 3 ACC team and perennially has a chance at doing damage in the NCAA tournament. Wake’s year could not have gone worse in terms of ACC and regular-season record (13-20, 2-14 in conference), placing them in the first round of the tournament and looking up at their opponents.

The first round is always a who’s-who of non-athletic dreck, pitting teams with little to play for alongside teams whose seasons have sunk into the icy murk of the Atlantic.

Wake Forest was near the bottom when they surfaced, gasping for air to beat fellow bottom-feeder Boston College. Led by stalwart and all-time great Wake scorer, senior Dearica Hamby, Wake put themselves in the position to show the ACC that they would belong next year, with three ESPN Top 100 recruits coming to Winston-Salem in the fall.

The second round begins to produce the real talent — the mid-tier teams looking to feast on the worst and get their shot at the best teams in the conference. The recent ACC expansions allow for this caste system to play out, guaranteeing fresher legs for the best and an absolute slog for the struggling teams.

When Wake produced four double-digit scorers and a win against nationally ranked Syracuse, fans saw a glimpse of the future rather than the turmoil they were used to all season.

Freshman guard Amber Campbell dropped 21 to aid Hamby’s 23, enough to earn the right to play Duke in the third round. Despite overwhelming odds and early foibles, they played well in a loss. I mean, what the hell? It’s Duke. They’ve won at least one ACC Tourney game in 21 of the last 22 years. Wake had a three-point deficit with 11 minutes to play.

While the Demon Deacons tried to shake off the odds in their side of the bracket, the other column had no surprises in continual blowouts. Until Louisville played UNC, not one possession of a night-session game had been enjoyable. Louisville maintained a balanced offense, attacking inside to draw fouls on UNC defenders. UNC hit an abundance of jumpers to keep the game tight.

While Louisville looked like the better team, they didn’t have the offensive game to pull away. Their patient, cloying plays measured space in half-distances. They earned shots.

They countered UNC’s length and quickness with constant ball-reversals, creating tiny pockets of offense rather than driving into open spaces.

Unlike Wake, who had to rely on their star to carry them, Louisville balanced their attack. When UNC’s Jamie Cherry hit an unbelievable 40-foot buzzer-beater to force overtime, UNC looked poised to dismantle Louisville’s strategy with luck.

But Louisville won the most exciting game of the tournament in overtime, 77-75.

The final four teams read as they were supposed to: The Top 4 teams played each other; the Top 2 teams withstood viable runs from game opponents.

Louisville’s offensive strategy did them no good against Florida State, since FSU began the game hitting approximately 130 percent of their shots. With a 21-point lead and the obviously better athletes, FSU seemed ready to continue the string of blowouts, but Louisville did what any team with a large deficit would do.

They won tiny wars of attrition.

They never went on a tear, but they won small battles. They outscored FSU 6-2, 7-2, 5-0. They hit threes and got stops when they needed to. They closed the gap to 3 points.

To do that, though, you have to expend a ton of energy. Once the effort flattened to expectation, FSU took a commanding lead back. They won running away.

Notre Dame, essentially untested by a Duke team that closed within two possessions only once in the second half, joined the ACC two years ago and has dominated the Women’s ACC unlike anyone ever has. FSU’s athletic defense needed to play a perfect game and that defensive spark never materialized.

Notre Dame’s motion and passing pulverized the Seminoles, leaving them out of place hunting for steals. Notre Dame lived in the lane, alternating between layups and wide-open threes. The guards orchestrated the offense beautifully, and the caste system remained in place.

That there were no surprises didn’t hamper a great tournament. Watching Notre Dame play in the last two tourneys has been an undeniable treat. As much as an upset would fit the crowd’s desire, the best were always the best.

No shame in watching them prove it.

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