UNC ranked No. 1 in AP women's poll for first time

Updated: January 31, 2006, 1:40 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

North Carolina finally added what was missing from its women's basketball resume after a national championship and six Atlantic Coast Conference titles -- a No. 1 ranking.

North Carolina climbed to the top of The Associated Press poll for the first time on Monday, a day after the Tar Heels beat No. 2 Duke in an intense game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

The Tar Heels also took the top spot in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll, which was released Tuesday.

The matchup became a battle for the top spot after Duke's victory six days earlier over Tennessee, which had been No. 1 for eight weeks. North Carolina (20-0) is now the only unbeaten team in men's or women's Division I basketball. The Tar Heels received all 46 first-place votes from a national media panel.

"I'm happy for our kids," said North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, who guided the Tar Heels to the 1994 NCAA title. "They work really hard. But we know we can't relax. Everybody's going to be after us. And we want to be No. 1 at the end of the season."

North Carolina, which moved up from third, had never been higher than No. 2 in 243 previous appearances in The AP poll. And the Tar Heels reached that position only once -- the week of Nov. 29, 2004.

Duke (20-1) remained second, while No. 3 LSU (17-1) and No. 4 Connecticut (19-2) each moved up one place. Tennessee (19-2) lost at Kentucky three days after the loss at Duke and dropped to fifth. Those were the first back-to-back losses for the Lady Vols since 1997.

Kentucky joined the poll at No. 21 as one of four newcomers, the first ranking for the Wildcats in 13 years. St. John's came in at No. 25 to end an even longer absence from the poll -- 22 years.

The other newcomers were No. 23 Boston College and No. 24 North Carolina State. Both had been ranked earlier this month.

Notre Dame, Southern Cal, Florida and Virginia Tech dropped out after they went a combined 0-8 during the week. Southern Cal and Florida had entered the poll just last week.

North Carolina had lost 12 straight games to Duke before beating the Blue Devils three times last season. The Tar Heels made it four in a row with a sensational comeback Sunday, rallying from 12 points down midway through the second half to win 74-70 behind center Erlana Larkins and fleet-footed point guard Ivory Latta.

"They love the environment of the big game," Hatchell said. "Even when we were down, it's just a special feeling that this team has to never give up. It's sort of like the wind. You can't see it, but you sure can feel it."

Maryland remained sixth and was followed by Ohio State, Purdue, Rutgers and Baylor. The only change in that group was Rutgers and Baylor switching positions.

Oklahoma, which has won five straight and eight of nine, jumped two spots to No. 11 and Minnesota was up two places to 12th. Then it was DePaul, Georgia, Stanford and New Mexico, followed by Michigan State, Arizona State, BYU and Temple.

Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Boston College, North Carolina State and St. John's completed the Top 25.

With its 66-63 victory over Tennessee, Kentucky (15-4) became just the fourth unranked team to beat a No. 1. It was the first victory for Kentucky coach Mickie DeMoss over her former boss, Pat Summitt. DeMoss spent 18 years as Summitt's assistant at Tennessee before moving to Kentucky in 2003.

"It certainly gives us a lift," said DeMoss, who last season guided Kentucky to its first winning record since 2000. "Our motto this year has been to earn respect. It's earned. It's never just given to you. It's just another way of validating the fact that we have made some progress at Kentucky."

Kentucky had been ranked 90 times previously, but not since the week of Feb. 2, 1993.

St. John's (17-3), in the poll for the first time since the week of Feb. 5, 1984, has improved steadily under fourth-year coach Kim Barnes Arico. A year ago, the Red Storm won 20 games for the first time since 1988. This season, they're third in the Big East, trailing only Connecticut and Rutgers.

The season before Arico got the job, St. John's was 3-24 overall and 0-16 in the Big East.

"When I was hired, an article came out ranking us the worst of the worst programs in women's college basketball, so our goal has always been to put St. John's back on the map," Arico said.

"I have to give credit to our players who really believed they could make a difference. They took a chance on us and we've been able to turn the corner."

Notre Dame, which had been 21st, ended a string of 30 straight appearances in the poll with its departure. The Irish (12-7) lost to Rutgers and South Florida last week and have gone 3-6 since Dec. 31.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.