It has been an overachieving first season at North Carolina State for coach Wes Moore, and the Wolfpack have no plans to stop now.
Fifth-seeded North Carolina State makes the cross-country trek to Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles to face No. 12 seed BYU on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Women’s tournament.
Picked to finish 10th in the reconfigured Atlantic Coast Conference that added perennial power and currently undefeated Notre Dame, Moore and North Carolina State (25-7) far exceeded those low expectations with a fourth-place finish that ended with a loss in the tournament semifinals to the Fighting Irish. Moore, who guided Chattanooga to nine NCAA tournament appearances in his 15 seasons there before arriving in Raleigh, is one of four finalists for the Naismith Women’s College Coach of the Year award after guiding the Wolfpack to their first NCAA appearance since 2010.
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Moore’s best player is Markeisha Gatling, who is averaging career highs of 17.6 points and 7.1 rebounds. She is also on the verge of a single-season school record for shooting at 67.6 percent.
Gatling sat out the ACC semifinal loss to Notre Dame due to a knee injury but practiced with the team in Los Angeles and is expected to play in this game.
She’ll get help from forward Kody Burke, who contributes 15.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. A native of Northridge, Calif., the senior is excited about the estimated 30 friends and family who will make the trip to UCLA’s campus for the game.
”It definitely inspires me to play my best,” said Burke, whose mother will watch her play in person for the first time since high school. ”We’re going to shock the world.”
BYU (26-6), which received an at-large bid after losing to Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference tournament final, has a potential counter to Gatling in do-everything center Jennifer Hamson, who averages team highs of 18.3 points, 11.2 rebounds and 4.0 bocks. The 6-foot-7 senior had 20 double-doubles, and the Cougars went 19-1 in those games.
”It’s going to be interesting who wins the battle,” BYU coach Jeff Judkins said about the matchup between Gatling and Hamson. ”I don’t think it will decide the game, but it will make a difference.”
The Cougars also have a pair of perimeter threats in Lexi Eaton (16.9 ppg) and Kim Beeston (11.6 ppg). Beeston made a team-leading 92 3-pointers, shooting 40.9 percent from beyond the arc, and averaged 4.9 assists.
Both teams rebound the ball well, but BYU has been careless with the ball at times. The Cougars have a turnover margin of minus-3.2, which ranks 306th in Division I, and have committed 20 or more in each of their last four games.