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How NC State women’s basketball built a No. 1 seed in March Madness

From not making the NCAA tournament to a No. 1 seed in six years.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 08 ACC Women’s Tournament - Florida State v NC State Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NC State women’s basketball team has had a banner year. They won the ACC tournament for the second year in a row, rose to No. 3 in the country in the most recent AP Poll, and have a No. 1 seed in the Mercado region of the 2021 NCAA tournament. While it’s been fun to watch them dominate throughout this season, it truly has been a work in progress up to this point.

NC State women’s basketball has not always been so successful. Having made it to the tournament the last three years, one could assume the program is accustomed to this level of success, but in reality they’ve have been building towards this for years. Here is how the Wolfpack’s overnight success has been six-plus years in the making.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 08 ACC Women’s Tournament - Florida State v NC State Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Under legendary coach Kay Yow, NC State had made many deep runs in the NCAA tournament. Though the program has never won a national championship during Kay Yow’s coaching tenure, they won the ACC regular season champion five times, the ACC conference championship four times, and has 23 NCAA tournament appearances. This includes a Final Four appearance in 1999. But the program struggled one Yow passed away from cancer in 2009.

As a former ACC women’s basketball athlete, I know NC State very well. At the beginning of my career in 2013, I would have considered them to be a middle-of-the-road team. They weren’t a Duke or Notre Dame that would blow you out if you didn’t come scouted and ready to play, but they were dangerous, definitely a team you wanted to beat because some wins in the conference were harder to come by than others.

During my final season in the ACC, 2015-2016, my team was in a similar spot as NC State. They were a bubble team. We were not, but we hoped to find our way into the tournament somehow. Not confident of our chances, we did not host a Selection Monday watch party, but they did.

Their team, coaches, support staff, and fans piled into a restaurant to hear their name called and to celebrate. But as the selection show went on and the restaurant got quieter and quieter. At the end of the selection show, they all looked around the room in disappointment: their name was would not be called. It’s painful not to be selected for the tournament; it’s even more painful when you’ve thrown a party to celebrate, and you can’t even do that.

NCAA BASKETBALL: JAN 05 Women’s - Miami at NC State Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Miah Spencer, a junior guard at that time, relives the moment. She said, “You could feel the tension in the room,” as each region was announced and NC State had not been called.

As the selection show went on and participating teams had been called, it was apparent that they did not make it that year. Sitting in a room of NC State faithful waiting to celebrate, the Wolfpack let reality sink in. Spencer said, “It was hard. We went home and started talking about all the teams that made it over us.”

Later, NC State declined to participate in the NIT, which was a pivotal turning point for the program. Spencer said, “It definitely fueled the fire for the following year for sure. We were all so dialed in... locked in.”

The road to a No. 1 seed

The average fan doesn’t understand that the season really begins as soon as the previous one ends. From postseason to summer workouts, pre-pre-season (yes, that’s a thing), preseason, and then finally the actual season, a lot is building up to that moment of hearing your team’s name called.

Here is a brief six-year history of what led to NC State’s name being called on Monday.

  • 2015-16: The Wolfpack missed the tournament and declined to participate in the NIT.
  • 2016-17: Looking to avenge the disappointment from the previous season, the Wolfpack made the tournament, beating Auburn in the first round but losing to Texas in the second.
  • 2017-18: Their hard work and consistency began to show to the rest of the nation. They were ranked No. 21 and made it all the way to the 3rd round before losing to Mississippi State.
  • 2018-19: In 2019, more improvement came. The Wolfpack was ranked as high as No. 7 during the year and finished the year at No. 10. They also went to the tournament for the third straight year and landed the third seed in their bracket. NC State made it to the third round, where they fell to Iowa.
  • 2019-20: NC State was ranked as high as No. 4 that year and ended the season ranked 8th. They were also ACC champions. Unfortunately, they could not vie for a national championship that season due to the pandemic and the NCAA calling off the tournament.

Everything came together for NC State in 2021

Now in 2021, the Wolfpack is ranked No. 3 in the nation. They also have a No. 1 seed in the tournament and are on their way to the later rounds if all goes well, but clearly, it hasn’t always been that way. They have gone from hosting a failed selection day party to not wondering if they would make it in, but if they would snag the No. 1 seed in six years.

Let me backtrack, there were years of work that have led up to this moment, not solely this past six, but as Miah Spencer alluded to, the 2016 postseason was a turning point.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 08 ACC Women’s Tournament - Florida State v NC State Photo by William Howard/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Now, as the Wolfpack prepare for their tournament run, I can’t help but cheer them on. Once a competitor, now a fan, they may not seem like underdogs this year, but having seen where they came from I, and hopefully many of you, will be rooting for their success this postseason.

No. 1 seeds might seem like their success is pre-ordained or that they have been cutting down nets routinely, but any program can go through a rough patch. To see NC State where they are now, it’s a testament to NC State’s current coach Wes Moore and their talented players. Together, they have been able to turn the program around and get back to consistently competing for championships.