Go ahead, circle the date: Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023.
That’s the day the N.C. State and North Carolina’s women’s basketball teams will face off for the first time this season. The game will be in Chapel Hill, and it should be a test of will and talent.
The Wolfpack, coached by Wes Moore, has won the past three ACC championships, putting the Pack at the top of the ACC pecking order. But the Tar Heels, under Courtney Banghart, are ranked higher this season — UNC is No. 6 and N.C. State No. 12 in this week’s AP poll — and eager to knock the Pack off its perch, both in-state and in the ACC.
And, yes, there has been some snarl and vitriol. Banghart, now in her fourth season as UNC coach and 2-4 against NCSU, has made a few comments about “small gym” Reynolds Coliseum and “classless” Pack fans that she felt the need to walk back.
Bottom line: The rivalry is back, at full force.
There’s a lot of basketball to be played before Jan. 15. Both the Pack (6-1) and Tar Heels (6-0) compete Thursday in the last rendition of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, N.C. State going on the road to face No. 10 Iowa (5-2) and UNC at No. 5 Indiana (7-0).
For the Tar Heels it will be their first game since competing in the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland, Oregon, where the women fared better than the UNC men. The Tar Heels edged then-No. 18 Oregon 85-79, then rallied from 17 points behind to top No. 6 Iowa State 73-64.
“We’re watching them become a team in front of our eyes,” Banghart said after the Iowa State game.
Deja Kelly spurred the rally with 22 of her 29 points in the second half. Kennedy Todd-Williams had 17 points, all in the second half, and Alyssa Ustby finished with 14.
Talk about making effective halftime adjustments: UNC shot 21% from the field in the opening half and 65% in the second.
It was a nice showcase for Kelly, a first-team All-ACC choice last season. In the two games, the junior guard had 11 assists and one turnover in being named the tournament MVP.
N.C. State was at the Cancun Challenge in Mexico over Thanksgiving, beating Vanderbilt 82-73 and then routing West Virginia 78-40 as the Pack looked to recover and regroup and from a humbling road loss to Connecticut.
In a rematch of their NCAA tournament thriller last season, the Wolfpack took a 91-69 beating from then-No. 5 UConn in Hartford, Conn., on Nov. 20. The Pack had 19 turnovers that the Huskies converted into 27 points.
N.C. State had no answer for UConn sophomore Azzi Fudd, who knocked down six 3-pointers in scoring 32 points. Diamond Johnson led the Pack with 13 points, missing 11 of 14 of her 3-point shots as the Pack was 6-of-25 on 3’s.
“It wasn’t pretty to watch,” Moore said after the game. “I think people in the past have enjoyed watching our team. I doubt anybody enjoyed watching us today. We’ve got a lot to figure out, quickly.”
The Wolfpack shot the ball well (52.5%) against Vanderbilt as Jakia Brown-Turner and Johnson combined to hit seven of 10 from 3-point range. The Pack got 18 points and 11 rebounds from River Baldwin, the 6-5 transfer from Florida State, in the romp against West Virginia – N.C. State scored 46 points in the paint.
At Iowa, the Pack will face a team that was ranked No. 4 in preseason, returned all five starters from last season and is led by All-America guard Caitlin Clark, the Big Ten preseason player of the year.
Iowa also was beaten by UConn, losing 86-79 in the Phil Knight Legacy event in Portland.
The Wolfpack opens ACC play Dec. 18 against Clemson and UNC faces Florida State on Dec. 29. Pushing those two in the conference will be Notre Dame, ranked No. 7 this week, No. 9 Virginia Tech and No. 18 Louisville.
The competition will be tough and tight — especially on Jan. 15 in Chapel Hill.