- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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For those of you who couldn't make it to Greensboro, N.C., earlier this month, don't worry. They're going to hold the ACC women's tournament all over again.
Well, almost. LSU of the Southeastern Conference is showing up, too. But the other three participants in Boston will be North Carolina, Duke and Maryland. (Yes, for the first time since 1999, the Final Four won't include either Tennessee or Connecticut.) This is the first time in the history of NCAA Women's Final Four that three of the participants are from the same conference. It has happened once in the men's tournament, in 1985, when the Big East's Georgetown, St. John's and Villanova all advanced to the Final Four.
What a wonderful accomplishment this is for the conference that was home to the passing genius of Dawn Staley (Virginia), the acrobatic finishes of Andrea Stinson (NC State), the leaping fearlessness of Tracy Reid (North Carolina), the toughness and resolve of Jessie Hicks (Maryland) and well, I could go on and on and on.
I grew up on Big Eight women's basketball, but the hoops I saw while living in ACC country in the 1990s left a huge, lasting impression on me. I saw some of the best games and best players I'll ever see in my life in the ACC in that time period. It was a blast. That was when I became absolutely certain that I wanted to write about women's hoops forever. Or, you know, as long as I live and can turn on the laptop.
The ACC women are in such a big shadow of the men's popularity, and that's completely understandable and logical. Yet anyone who's followed the growth of the ACC women knows there are so many remarkable stories in their game, too, and this Final Four is a celebration of all that conference has meant and continues to mean to the sport.
It figures, though, that the ACC "party crasher" would be from the SEC.
You betcha. The SEC is, by far, the leader in having more than one spot in the Final Four. That league has had two teams make it that far in the same year seven times. As you might guess, Tennessee is one of the teams in all seven. The others: Auburn (1988, '89), Georgia ('95, '96), Arkansas ('98) and LSU (2004, 2005).
The other leagues to double up in the Final Four are the Sun Belt in 1985 (Old Dominion and Western Kentucky), the Big Ten in 1993 (Ohio State and Iowa) and the Big East in 2000 (UConn and Rutgers) and 2001 (Notre Dame and UConn).
Part of the reason that one conference has never gotten three teams in the Final Four before is because no matter how good a league is, the brackets have to line up right. A league must have at least three teams in different regions.
The ACC was in position to have three of the Final Four in 1998, back when all four regional finals were on the same night. North Carolina State started out that evening with a victory over UConn. Then North Carolina and Duke both held leads against Tennessee and Arkansas, respectively, but lost those games.
The other times when one conference has had three teams in different regions all make the Elite Eight were in 2000, 1997 and 1996. In all those cases, that league was the SEC. In 1996, in fact, the SEC had a team in each region in the Elite Eight; that's the only time one league has made up half of the regional semifinals.
So it could have been an all-SEC Final Four in '96. Instead, Tennessee and Georgia made it to Charlotte that year, then advanced to the national championship game.
The ACC is now set to have its 11th, 12th and 13th appearance in the Final Four, all of those made by Duke (four), Maryland (three), Virginia (three), North Carolina (two) and NC State (one). But out of that, there has been only one national champion thus far: the Tar Heels in 1994.
Somehow, it seems rather appropriate that on the 25th anniversary of the NCAA Tournament, the ACC would accomplish this. The conference had a representative in the first Final Four in 1982 (Maryland). And anybody could guess what the ESPN top-moments-in-tournament-history countdown's No. 1 is going to be: "Charlotte Smith for three! Yes!"
That electrifying moment in 1994 -- when North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell danced and Louisiana Tech's Leon Barmore began a years-long process of agonizing over the final-play defense -- was the highlight for the ACC.
The league has had some big disappointments, too. One of its best players ever, Staley, led Virginia to three consecutive Final Four appearances but never won a title. Another league legend, Duke's Alana Beard, went to the Final Four twice but didn't get a national championship, either.
It's still quite possible, obviously, that LSU will win that school's first women's basketball national championship and the ACC will be denied a second title. But the ACC certainly has stacked the odds in its favor this time.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.