RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina State already has earned the best start in program history. Now the Wolfpack are chasing their best finish.
N.C. State begins its push for its first Final Four in 21 years on Saturday when the third-seeded Wolfpack take on 14th-seeded Maine in the first round of the Greensboro Region after sixth-seeded Kentucky faces 11th-seeded Princeton.
The Wolfpack have kept rolling despite losing four key players to season-ending injuries.
“We’ve got to focus on what we have,” coach Wes Moore said Friday. “Our expectations don’t change. Everybody just has to do a little bit more and fill in the gaps.”
The Wolfpack (26-5), who are 10th in the national rankings, climbed into the top 10 during a 21-game winning streak that left them as the last unbeaten team in Division I in either gender before a loss to rival North Carolina on Feb. 3. The previous mark was set by the 1999-2000 team that won its first 14 games under late coach Kay Yow — whose only Final Four of her Hall of Fame career came two years before that.
“That was a big accomplishment for us, and it just kind of pushes us more to want to do even better in the tournament,” forward DD Rogers said. “After losing the streak, we kind of just tried to gather as a team and tell each other that it didn’t define our season. … It’s pushed us to want to really make it all the way.”
Perhaps most remarkable is that there hasn’t been a dropoff despite all those injuries. The Wolfpack lost starting guard Kaila Ealey before the season, leading scorer Grace Hunter and key reserve Armani Hawkins in January, and starting forward Erika Cassell last month.
“They’ve overcome a lot of adversity and hurdles along the way and just keep finding ways to reinvent themselves,” Moore said.
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Some other story lines to follow this weekend in Raleigh:
Kentucky (24-7), which is at No. 17 in the poll, has won its first-round game in each of its last 10 NCAA Tournament appearances, and coach Matthew Mitchell is 8-0 in NCAA openers. But the Wildcats didn’t make the field last year, ending a run of eight consecutive appearances that included three trips to the Elite Eight. Kentucky got hot down the stretch, winning six straight Southeastern Conference games in February. “We wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again, so it is really on the team about making sure that we had the focus all year round,” senior guard Maci Morris said.
Princeton (22-9) is playing in Raleigh for the second year in a row and coach Courtney Banghart said the Tigers are staying at the same hotel they did last year when they lost their first-round matchup with Maryland as a No. 12 seed. “There’s a comfort to it — same hotel, same people, same venue — and hopefully that gives this young group an opportunity to feel some comfort,” Banghart said, adding that in the NCAA Tournament, “the more comfort you can find, the better.”
A FAMILIAR NAME
Bella Alarie is once again leading the way for Princeton. The daughter of former Duke star Mark Alarie has won two straight Ivy League player of the year and was the most outstanding performer at the league tournament for the second straight year. She averages 23 points and 10.4 rebounds while shooting 52.6 percent.
AND MORE FAMILIAR FACES
The selection committee set up a regular-season rematch by pairing Maine (25-7) with N.C. State. The Wolfpack routed the Black Bears 84-46 in this building on Dec. 15. Maine has won 18 of 22 since then, a run that includes a 14-game winning streak and a 15-1 mark in America East play. “The scary thing is, I know they’re a lot better than” they were in December, Moore said.
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