ACC Tournament promises excitement, surprises

Alyssa Utsby outruns the Duke defense last weekend. North Carolina Athletics photo.

Tomorrow, the much-anticipated ACC Tournament tips off in Greensboro, North Carolina. Though five teams are ranked in the top 25 this week, it is a mystery as to who will claim  the crown in Sunday’s championship game. This year – one of its best in recent memory – the ACC is like an iceberg: there is a lot more depth to this conference than meets the eye.

The top four teams

No. 1-seeded Notre Dame, No. 2 Duke, No. 3 Virginia Tech and No. 4 Louisville all get double-byes, and do not play until Friday’s quarterfinals.

For much of the season, Notre Dame looked like the best team in the conference, with the highest chance of reaching the Final Four, as they are a two-way team. However, despite finishing the season on a six-game winning streak, there is now uncertainty due to the ACC’s assist leader, Olivia Miles, going down with a right knee injury in the final game of the regular season against Louisville on Sunday. No update on her condition has yet been provided.

Duke sat at the top of the conference for much of the year, as they are the by far the best defensive team with the fewest points allowed per game, and the lowest opposing shooting percentage from the field. Players like Celeste Taylor, Kennedy Brown, Shayeann Day-Wilson and Elizabeth Balogun have led the Blue Devils back to contender status in coach Kara Lawson’s second year.

Virginia Tech finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak, with reigning conference player of the year, Elizabeth Kitley, dominating on both ends of the floor. Against Georgia Tech Sunday, she put up 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, as she overpowered Nerea Hermosa not just in the paint, but also with her jump shot. Kitley was also, once again, a great rim protector, as the Hokies only allowed 14 points in the paint.

“She’s got a really strong, high release, but even with our 6-5 and total contest, she’s knocking them down, so kudos to her,” Yellow Jacket coach Nell Fortner said.

Despite falling out of the rankings earlier this season, Louisville isn’t out for the count as long as they have Hailey Van Lith. The dynamic junior guard is averaging 19.4 points, 5 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.5 steals per game. The Cardinals might have gotten off to a rough start at 9-4 in non-conference play, but they finished strong in the month of February, going 5-2.

First- and second-round matchups

Game 1 of the tournament will feature No. 13 Virginia vs. No. 12 Wake Forest. Both teams are good defensively, and not so good offensively, and that could be a huge advantage for whoever plays in Game 4 against No. 5 Florida State. The Seminoles have have not just the top-scoring offense, but also the ACC’s leading scorer in freshman Ta’Niya Latson.

Game 2 will feature No. 10 Clemson vs. No. 15 Pitt. The Tigers finished the season on a two-game winning streak, with an especially-impressive defensive performance against Florida State in the final game, in which they held Latson to just 4 points. The Panthers are in the bottom three in terms of scoring and points allowed. One of these teams will play No. 7 North Carolina in game 6.

Game 3 will feature Cameron Swartz of No. 14 Georgia Tech, who will face off against her former team, No. 11 Boston College. Swartz carried her new team offensively in their final home game of the season, as the only player in double-figures with 20 points, and she single-handedly kept the Yellow Jackets in the game with her jump shooting (44 percent), and especially her 3-point shooting (44 percent). Georgia Tech will need her again if they want to move on to play No. 6 Miami in Game 7.

“We’re still going to run stuff for her, but the offense gives other people looks and we’ve got to be confident to knock those shots down,” Fortner said.

Game 5 of the second round has No. 9 Syracuse Orange and No. 8 NC State facing off. Both teams have headed in opposite directions recently, as the Wolfpack have lost five out of their last eight games, while the Orange finished out their slate winning four of their last seven.

Pertinent questions to ask

  • Can Duke score when it matters? As stout of a defensive team as the Blue Devils have been all season long, they are only 12th in the ACC in points per game. That did hurt them against opponents like Virginia Tech, UConn and North Carolina, as they were unable to score in critical moments.
  • Elizabeth Kitley launches a shot. Virginia Tech Athletics photo.

    Will Virginia Tech’s supporting cast show up? In the final game of the regular season, the Hokies’ entire starting lineup – Kitley, Georgia Amoore, Taylor Soule, Cayla King and Kayana Traylor – was responsible for all 65 of their points scored. They will need at least some help off the bench, hopefully from Ashley Owusu, in order to go far.

  • How healthy will NC State be? The Wolfpack have missed Diamond Johnson in the past three games, and just recently got Jada Boyd back, so it definitely remains to be seen if and when Johnson will return. If she doesn’t, Jakia Brown-Turner will need to step up in her absence.

Dark-horse contenders

  • Miami: The starting duo of Haley Cavinder and Destiny Harden, as well as the dependable supporting cast of Hanna Cavinder, Lashae Dwyer and Kyla Oldacre, is able to compete with the best lineups in the nation when they are at full throttle.
  • North Carolina: The Tar Heels have now gotten their full team back with Eva Hodgson, Kayla McPherson and Alyssa Utsby, who join Deja Kelly and Kennedy Todd-Williams to be able to defend at a high level, as shown when they held Duke to just 41 points in their weekend win over their Triangle rival.
  • Boston College: The Eagles are a team that is definitely more than the sum of its parts. They boast five players in JoJo Lacey, Dontavia Waggoner, Taina Mair, Maria Gakdeng and Andrea Daley, that are able to come together like a puzzle in that if they all are playing to their fullest potential, they look like legitimate contenders.

ACC Tournament Schedule and Predictions

All games at Greensboro Coliseum

First four rounds on ACC Network. Championship game on ESPN.

First Round – Wednesday, March 1

Game 1: No. 12 Wake Forest vs. No. 13 Virginia, 1 p.m. ET (Predicted Winner: Virginia)

Game 2: No. 10 Clemson vs. No. 15 Pitt, 3:30 p.m. ET (Predicted Winner: Clemson)

Game 3: No. 11 Boston College vs. No. 14 Georgia Tech, 6:30 p.m. ET (Predicted Winner: Boston College)

Second Round – Thursday, March 2

Game 4: No. 5 Florida State vs. Game 1 winner, 11 a.m. ET (Predicted Winner: Florida State)

Game 5: No. 8 NC State vs. No. 9 Syracuse, 2 p.m. ET (Predicted Winner: Syracuse)

Game 6: No. 7 North Carolina vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m. ET (Predicted Winner: North Carolina)

Game 7: No. 6 Miami vs. Game 3 winner, 8 p.m. ET (Predicted Winner: Boston College)

Sonia Citron scores a crucial bucket against Louisville last weekend. Notre Dame Athletics photo.

Quarterfinals – Friday, March 3

Game 8: No. 4 Louisville vs. Game 4 winner, 11 a.m. ET (Predicted Winner: Louisville)

Game 9: No. 1 Notre Dame vs. Game 5 winner, 2 p.m. ET (Predicted Winner: Notre Dame)

Game 10: No. 2 Duke vs. Game 6 winner, 6 p.m. ET (Predicted Winner: Duke)

Game 11: No. 3 Virginia Tech vs. Game 7 winner, 8 p.m. ET (Predicted Winner: Virginia Tech)

Semifinals – Saturday, March 4

Game 12: Game 8 winner vs. Game 9 winner, noon ET (Predicted Winner: Louisville)

Game 13: Game 10 winner vs. Game 11 winner, 2:30 p.m. ET (Predicted Winner: Virginia Tech)

Championship – Sunday, March 5

Game 12 winner vs. Game 13 winner, 1 p.m. ET (Predicted Champion: Virginia T