Walz, No. 4 Louisville enters ACC Tournament as headliner

For once, fourth-ranked Louisville is the unquestioned headliner at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.

The Cardinals (27-3, 16-2) won the regular-season race outright for the first time since joining the league before the 2014-15 season. After sharing the regular-season crown the past two years with Notre Dame, Jeff Walz’s team finished two games ahead 10th-ranked North Carolina State as it pursues a second ACC Tournament title.

“I think we’re playing defensively as well as we’ve played all year,” Walz said after Sunday’s win against Virginia Tech. “We’re really dialed in, and that’s where you want to make sure you’re playing good ball.”

The tournament opens Wednesday in Greensboro, North Carolina, while the Cardinals, Wolfpack, Duke and No. 22 Florida State have double byes into Friday’s quarterfinals as the top four seeds. The championship game is Sunday.

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The Cardinals led the league in scoring (73.3), shooting percentage (.457) and free-throw percentage (.746) while ranking third in 3-point shooting (.349). Louisville also boasts the league player of the year in Dana Evans (17.9 points) and defensive player of the year in Kylee Shook (league-best 2.8 blocks).

The Cardinals won the tournament as the No. 1 seed in 2018 before losing to the Fighting Irish in last year’s final. Claiming another championship would strengthen the Cardinals’ case for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.

“We know that we’re playing for something much bigger and we can’t take any game lightly right here,” senior Jazmine Jones said.

The strongest challenge likely comes from the Wolfpack (25-4, 14-4), the No. 2 seed that has spent the past 13 weeks ranked inside the top 10 of the AP Top 25. N.C. State lost the only regular-season meeting with the Cardinals on Feb. 13 at home to start a 1-3 stretch, but the Wolfpack beat Syracuse and Virginia to close on better footing.

Led by all-ACC performer Elissa Cunane, N.C. State is pursuing its first ACC Tournament title since 1991.

“It’s great momentum going into the postseason,” Wolfpack junior Kayla Jones said. “We needed these two wins and we’re looking forward to what the future brings.”

Here are things to know about this week’s ACC Tournament:

LOW-SEEDED IRISH

Notre Dame has dominated the ACC since arriving before the 2013-14 season, so it’s odd to see the Fighting Irish playing on the first day a No. 10 seed against 15th-seed Pittsburgh.

The Fighting Irish (13-17, 8-10) lost five starters from a national runner-up and had their worst season since going 14-17 in 1992, back in the fifth of Muffet McGraw’s 33 seasons in charge.

Compare that to the previous six seasons, when the Irish went 91-5 during ACC regular-season play and went on to win the tournament five times.

SEMINOLES’ STUMBLES

Florida State was 13-0 and ranked eighth nationally at the end of 2019. The Seminoles enter the tournament having barely been better than .500 since then. FSU is the No. 4 seed, but Sue Semrau’s team has won just nine of 16 games.

DEVILS’ ROLL

Third-seeded Duke brings momentum into Greensboro, winning seven of eight since starting 11-10 — including last week’s road win at N.C. State.

All-ACC graduate guard Haley Gorecki has been hot with four 20-point games in that stretch, while the Blue Devils have gotten healthier with Kyra Lambert – who missed the past two seasons due to knee surgeries – and Mikayla Boykin (knee injury) becoming reliable contributors.

TOURNAMENT DEBUTS

Georgia Tech’s Nell Fortner and North Carolina’s Courtney Banghart are making their tournament debuts in their first season in the ACC. Fortner, the coach of the gold-medal winning 2000 Olympics U.S. women’s basketball team and former ESPN analyst, last coached at Auburn in 2012. Banghart spent 12 years at Princeton before becoming just the fourth women’s basketball coach at North Carolina.

Fortner’s Yellow Jackets are the No. 7 seed and play the Pitt-Notre Dame winner in Thursday’s second round. Banghart’s Tar Heels are the No. 12 seed and play the tournament’s first game against 13th-seed Wake Forest on Wednesday.

ACC HONORS

The ACC announced individual honors Tuesday, with Boston College and Virginia Tech also claiming two each.

The Eagles’ Joanna Bernabei-McNamee was named coach of the year while Taylor Soule was selected most improved player. As for the Hokies, Elizabeth Kitley was named freshman of the year and Trinity Baptiste the sixth player of the year.

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AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz in Charlottesville, Virginia; and AP freelancer Steve Bittenbender in Louisville, Kentucky; contributed to this report.

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More AP women’s basketball: https://apnews.com/Womenscollegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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