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Bolstered UNC, Maryland to challenge Duke

After winning five straight ACC titles, Duke looks vulnerable in a league it has recently dominated. Preseason favorite North Carolina and up-and-coming Maryland appear ready to snatch the crown.

The ACC has not traditionally been a women’s basketball powerhouse or the site of Duke’s most dangerous competition, but running unscathed through the ACC this season will be more difficult than in years past.

With a promising outlook for the Tar Heels and Terrapins, and the addition of 2004 NCAA Tournament qualifiers Miami and Virginia Tech, the ACC will provide Duke with substantial competition this season.

Despite losing 12 straight games to the Blue Devils, the Tar Heels are talented enough to regain Tobacco Road bragging rights. With three potential matchups against Duke this season, UNC will rely on its sophomore tandem of Ivory Latta and Camille Little to make the series competitive.

“Carolina is always, always good,” Blue Devil head coach Gail Goestenkors said of a team ranked above Duke in the preseason ACC media poll. “They have just such great experience coming back from last year that I think they’ll be a team that could do great things this year.”

North Carolina’s high hopes are based on a solid foundation of depth and experience. The Tar Heels return all but one starter, including Little, last season’s ACC Rookie of the Year. Swing forward La’Tangela Atkinson, reigning ACC rebound leader and 2003 ACC Rookie of the Year, complements National Player of the Year candidates Latta and Little.

“We’re very athletic, and we have a lot of players that can play a lot of positions,” North Carolina head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “We’ll play an up-tempo, fast-breaking style, and we have good depth to do that.”

Coming off its first NCAA Tournament win in 12 years, Maryland is another conference team on the rise.

“I think Maryland is really ready to break through,” Goestenkors said of a team that challenged Duke in last year’s ACC Tournament. “They have some outstanding sophomores, and they’ve signed some great freshmen as well. So I think they’re young, but they’ve got all the pieces, so I think they’ll be a team to be reckoned with in our conference.”

Picked third in the ACC preseason poll, the young Terrapin squad includes two returning ACC All-Freshman Team honorees, Shay Doron and Kalika France. Maryland also boasts four promising young freshmen as part of the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class.

“I think that we need to be cautiously optimistic with this team,” Terrapin head coach Brenda Frese said. “Eight of our 11 scholarship players are freshmen and sophomores. So although this is by far the most talent that we’ve had since I’ve been here, we have to keep in perspective that there are going to be four freshmen playing a substantial amount of time for us.”

ACC newcomers Miami and Virginia Tech will bolster the conference’s depth.

“The two teams coming in are NCAA Tournament teams, so all the sudden our league becomes a much better league,” Goestenkors said. “I think that’s good, I think we need that.”

Junior Tamara James, a first team All-Big East forward and a member of the Preseason All-ACC Team, anchors the Miami squad. Returning seniors Yalonda McCormick and Melissa Knight may become impact players in the conference, head coach Ferne Labati said.

Adjusting to a new coach, along with its conference change, Virginia Tech is not as likely to be a force in the ACC. The Hokies do have an experienced squad, however, with four returning starters.

Although Duke will still face the majority of its tough matchups out of conference, this season’s ACC contests will pose more of a challenge to the Blue Devils than they have in recent years.

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