No. 5 Louisville, No. 8 NC State headline ACC women’s race

Fifth-ranked Louisville finally wrestled control of Atlantic Coast Conference women’s basketball away from Notre Dame. Now Jeff Walz’ Cardinals will tussle with eighth-ranked North Carolina State for league supremacy.

The Cardinals won the regular-season race outright last year for the first time since joining the ACC before the 2014-15 season. But it was Wes Moore’s Wolfpack that won the ACC Tournament championship for the first time in nearly three decades.

This year, the Cardinals are the preseason favorite ahead of the Wolfpack in a race that includes No. 22 Notre Dame and No. 23 Syracuse.

Louisville is coming off a 28-win season that included going 16-2 in league play, but the Cardinals fell in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament to Florida State. The Cardinals lost seniors Jazmine Jones (14.1 points) and Kylee Shook (program-record 233 blocks), but returns senior guard Dana Evans (18.0) as preseason ACC player of the year and preseason Associated Press All-American.

“We are further along on the offensive end, but defensively we definitely miss Kylee,” Walz said. “You’re talking about the defensive player of the year in the ACC, someone that protected the rim for us.

“So we’re going to have to get a lot better defensively, keeping people in front of us, making them shoot over us instead of getting beat and then hoping that Kylee is there to clean things up.”

N.C. State, also coming off a 28-win season, beat FSU to win the ACC Tournament for the first time since 1991. All-conference post player Elissa Cunane (16.4 points, 9.6 rebounds) is back, though the Wolfpack lost a lot of experience – including senior point guard Aislinn Konig.

“Now instead of seniors coming in off the bench, you may have freshmen coming in off the bench,” Moore said. “So that makes a difference.

“We’re not shying away from it. We’re excited about the opportunity. I did last year talk a lot about: ‘Let’s do something special.’ I haven’t really figured out what I’m going to say this year. I’ve got to figure something out.”

Some other things to know about ACC women’s basketball for the 2020-21 season:

PREDICTED FINISH

Louisville, N.C. State and Syracuse were picked 1-2-3 atop the preseason polls for both the league’s 15 coaches and a media panel.

Among the coaches’ picks, North Carolina was fourth, followed by Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Florida State, Boston College and Miami.

Duke, Wake Forest, Clemson, Pittsburgh and Virginia rounded out the final five teams.

WATTS’ RETURN

UNC added a talented recruiting class headlined by guard Deja Kelly, but also some experience with the return of Stephanie Watts.

The school announced in June that the 5-foot-11 guard would return to the Tar Heels after receiving an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA. She was one of multiple UNC players to transfer in 2019 amid an outside program review that highlighted concerns over player treatment, leading to Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell’s resignation and the hiring of Courtney Banghart from Princeton.

Watts spent last season at Southern California as a graduate transfer and played just four games due to injury. She played her first three seasons at UNC, averaging 15.5 points while being named ACC freshman of the year in 2016.

“She’s been more than I ever could have asked for. She’s so glad to be here,” Banghart said, adding: “She just appreciates that she’s given another chance to do this even better than the last time.”

SIDELINE ARRIVALS

The league added two new head coaches in Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey and Duke’s Kara Lawson.

Ivey replaces retired Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw at her alma mater, where she led the Fighting Irish to the NCAA title in 2001. Lawson replaces Joanne P. McCallie, who stepped down over the summer.

Both Ivey and Lawson had worked as NBA assistant coaches before taking over their ACC programs.

FILLING IN

FSU won’t have longtime coach Sue Semrau on the sidelines this season. She is taking a leave of absence to be with her ailing mother, meaning associate head coach Brooke Wyckoff will lead the Seminoles for the 2020-21 season.

Semrau is a four-time league coach of the year who has won 453 games and twice led the Seminoles to a share of the ACC regular-season title during her 23 seasons.

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AP Sports Writer Gary B. Graves 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

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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