SEATTLE – Like a game of musical chairs, Gonzaga and North Carolina are trying to occupy the same seat at the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
The Bulldogs and Tar Heels square off at 7:30 tonight at Hec Edmundson Pavilion and apparently both of them are underdogs.
North Carolina has a good argument as a No. 10 seed with a 19-11 record. At the same time, the Tar Heels, like all underdogs, deem that irrelevant.
“When tournament play comes, I don’t know if you’ve watched a lot of the men’s, but the seeding doesn’t really matter at this point,” junior guard Italee Lucas, UNC’s leading scorer at 14.7 points per game, said. “We pretty much are just coming out to play hard and hopefully get the upset.”
Gonzaga has a 27-4 record, No. 18 national ranking, an 18-game winning streak and a seven seed, the Bulldogs’ highest in three NCAA appearances. That is irrelevant, GU coach Kelly Graves said.
“Regardless of what the seed says, we’re obviously the underdog,” Graves said. “Up here in the Northwest a lot of people associate basketball and Gonzaga together. Certainly nationally North Carolina and basketball are the two that really go together.
“North Carolina is such a storied program. They go to NCAA tournaments expecting to get to Final Fours. We’ve certainly made great strides over the last decade but we still haven’t proven ourselves long term.”
He has a point. North Carolina has been to the tournament 18 times in coach Sylvia Hatchell’s 24 seasons, including the last nine, and four times before that. UNC won the 1994 championship.
Since last missing the tournament in 2001, the Tar Heels have never been seeded lower than a four and had a four-year run as a No. 1. Only four times have they been lower than a four and never lower than a seven.
“They know the NCAA, everybody is equal coming in,” Hatchell said of her team. “They know every team is very good, they know it’s not about your rankings, it’s how you play for those 40 minutes you’re on the court.”
And with similar styles, Hatchell expects a good game.
“We like the way they play, an up-tempo game,” she said. “It should be a fun game and hopefully a high-scoring game.”
Both teams often go deep into their bench but the Bulldogs have much more experience, which has led to stability. Of the nine Tar Heels who play at least nine minutes, four are freshmen and three are sophomores.
Hatchell has used 15 different lineups, none more than seven times, in the search for a consistent combination. The Zags have stuck to the same starting lineup except for a couple of injury situations.
That said, both teams say the game is not about the opponent.
“We worry about how we play,” Graves said. “We’ve prepared no differently for North Carolina than we have all year.”
“We know they’re a pretty good team,” N.C. guard Cetera DeGraffenreid said. “We just have to keep focusing on the things we’ve been focusing on all year and work on the things we’ve been doing in practice.”
Another edge for Gonzaga is location. The Bulldogs played in the same place last year when they won their first NCAA tournament game and almost reached the Sweet 16. And with the men’s team in New York there could be a sizable partisan crowd.
“I’m from the West Coast so it’s good for me,” Lucas, who is from Las Vegas, said of traveling across the country. “As far as them having the home-court advantage, we’ve been in situations like that. The court is the same, the ball is the same.”
“I would never say it’s not a bonus and a plus that we’re playing in Seattle,” Graves said. “… But the bottom line is the game is against North Carolina, throw all that stuff out.”