North Carolina State has been nearly perfect in NCAA Tournament games in its hometown.
Standing between the Wolfpack and another Sweet 16 appearance is Kentucky and its turnover-forcing press.
Third-seeded N.C. State (27-5) faces the sixth-seeded Wildcats (25-7) on Monday night in a second-round matchup with the winner advancing to the semifinals in the Greensboro Region.
These teams want to play in drastically different ways. Kentucky wants to speed things up, ranking eighth in Division I by forcing a Southeastern Conference-best 21.4 turnovers per game.
N.C. State’s path to victory involves controlling the glass: The Wolfpack rank 13th in the nation with an average rebounding margin of plus-8.8.
“Coach (Matthew) Mitchell talks to us a lot about focusing on Kentucky,” the Cats’ Jaida Roper said Sunday. “We know they like to crash the boards. So we’ve been working hard on just finding people and rebounding it and trying to get it out and push it as hard as we can consecutively so we can kind of wear on their condition a little bit because we have been working really hard with our conditioning. So just trying to focus on Kentucky. That’s our main goal.”
N.C. State Coach Wes Moore countered: “One way to slow it down is to get stops, and a big part of that is making sure they only get one shot a possession, and that we continue to do a great job on the boards. It definitely creates a big challenge for us.”
The Wolfpack, who are ranked 10th in the national rankings, have been tough to beat in NCAA Tournament games in Raleigh, improving to 15-2 all-time while not losing one since 1983. N.C. State also hasn’t lost at home to any non-Atlantic Coast Conference opponent since 2015, running the streak to 28 in a row with a 63-51 first-round victory over Maine.
Kentucky, which is ranked 17th, figures to present a formidable test. The Wildcats have been tournament regulars, with their run of eight consecutive appearances ending last year.
But leaving Lexington for the opening weekend brings a new set of challenges. Kentucky’s first-round victory over Princeton marked its first out-of-town tournament game since 2014 and its first NCAA victory outside the commonwealth since the regional semifinals the year before. The current team is 6-3 in road games.
“I feel like we’ve been playing really well on the road this year, and we’re ready for the challenge,” Roper said.
Both teams have impact freshmen getting their first taste of the tournament. Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard, the SEC’s newcomer of the year, averages a team-best 16.3 points and scored 15 in her NCAA Tournament debut.
“It was a great experience,” she said. “Learning experience, definitely. It just got me ready for what I will be going through.”
For N.C. State, Elissa Cunane has bolstered the front line, averaging 13 points and 5.9 rebounds with at least nine rebounds in three of her past six games.
The schools haven’t met since 1995 but Moore and Mitchell are familiar with each other. Mitchell was a graduate assistant to Pat Summitt at Tennessee about 20 years ago when Moore took the Chattanooga job, and Moore said he wound up paying Mitchell $100 to help lay the sod at his house.
“Well, I can’t confirm the hundred dollars,” Mitchell said. “I don’t remember the a hundred dollars. That’s not the way I remember it, but I did lay a yard full of sod of at Moore’s house. That’s been 20 years ago this coming fall is when that happened and I was a graduate assistant at the University of Tennessee and it’s a long story, but I did end up laying sod at his beautiful home in Chattanooga and we spent that day together. And that was the beginning of what’s been a really beneficial relationship for me.
“He’s been a person that I’ve really looked up to and could learn from and he’s been gracious with his time over the years and he always has such a well-coached team and a tough competitor and his teams are tough to play against.”
Retiring N.C. State athletics director Debbie Yow coached at Kentucky from 1976-80 and went up against her sister — late Hall of Fame coach Kay Yow — in the 1980 AIAW Tournament in Raleigh. The Wolfpack won 71-63.
No. 6 seed Kentucky vs. No. 3 seed North Carolina State
What: NCAA Tournament Greensboro Regional second-round game
Where: Raleigh, N.C.
When: 7 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Kentucky 25-7, North Carolina State 27-5