Why the Triangle teams' resurgence is good for women's basketball

NC State and UNC trade 3s (0:30)

Diamond Johnson and Paulina Paris trade 3s down the stretch for NC State and UNC. (0:30)

Courtney Banghart remembers when she was first allowed to stay up late to watch an entire North Carolina-Duke men's basketball game. Growing up in New Hampshire, she didn't know exactly how close the schools are located, but she was well aware their rivalry was mammoth.

"If they had a 9 p.m. tipoff, I couldn't see the end of it," she said. "Then I turned 11, and I got to watch the whole thing. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would actually be a part of it. But I have felt a part of it even when I wasn't."

She is now right in the middle of it as the North Carolina women's basketball coach. Thursday, her No. 17 Tar Heels host No. 13 Duke (8 p.m. ET, ACC Network) in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Just before that game, the other team in the Triangle, No. 20 NC State, hosts Miami (6 p.m. ET, ACC Network) in Raleigh.

The Triangle is probably the most famous area in college sports for the proximity, rivalries and distinct personalities of the three schools in a 25-mile radius. Men's basketball has been the nationally defining aspect of the Triangle in sports -- last year's UNC-Duke matchup at the men's Final Four in Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski's final season being the most recent of countless epic meetings -- but women's basketball has a vast and successful history in Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, too.

And when all three programs are doing well, it benefits women's basketball as a whole.

"Anything that can grow our game -- and that's often still a collective -- is important," Banghart said. "This area has sports fans who are fans of these rivalries in general, and that brings them to women's basketball. And they say, 'Wow, this is good basketball!' You feel a difference when it's time to play these games."

Duke (16-1 overall) leads the ACC at 6-0. North Carolina (12-5) got off to a rocky conference start but has won its past three games and is 3-3 in the ACC. NC State (13-5) also has hit a rough patch in the league and is 3-4.

In UNC's and NC State's defense, the ACC's competitive depth might be the best of any Power 5 conference this season. The conference has five ranked teams -- No. 7 Notre Dame and No. 12 Virginia Tech are the other two -- and eight in the most recent Bracketology.

The Blue Devils and Tar Heels are both led by elite guards: Duke's Celeste Taylor is averaging 12.9 points per game, and North Carolina's Deja Kelly 15.9. In conference play, the teams have been statistically similar despite their different records. NC State -- which lost a lot of experience from last season, including two 2022 WNBA draft picks -- is also led by guard play, with Diamond Johnson at 13.3 PPG.

Sunday at North Carolina, a sold-out crowd of 6,319 at Carmichael Arena made for a great atmosphere as the Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack 56-47. Even in defeat, NC State coach Wes Moore -- whose Wolfpack also have had some sellouts this season at Reynolds Coliseum -- appreciated the energy and how it translated on national television.

"That says a lot about our fans and the support," Moore said of the Triangle area. "I think our game is definitely booming right now. It's an exciting time."

Duke coach Kara Lawson competed in the most prominent rivalry in the women's game as a college player: Tennessee vs. UConn. But Lawson, who took over at Duke in 2020, seems more detached from the Triangle rivalries than Moore, who has been at NC State since 2013 and was a Wolfpack assistant in the 1990s, and Banghart, who became the Tar Heels coach in 2019.

Part of Lawson's strategy has been creating her own culture going forward without much consideration to Duke's or the ACC's pasts. That said, she knows the rivalries are important to fans.

"I can't say I've given too much thought about the history of the Triangle," Lawson said of facing UNC and NC State. "We played them four times last year and lost all of them. So, really, our focus has been to try to win.

"But I know it's a big rivalry; I'm not immune to that. We just haven't really talked about it because it just hasn't been on the first page of stuff that we need to work on."

NC State's Camille Hobby with a fancy finish

Camille Hobby shows off her footwork to finish a tough layup.

Duke, North Carolina and NC State are looking like sure bets for this year's women's NCAA tournament, but is the Triangle on its way back to being like its peak years? That is a big mountain to climb.

Triangle men's basketball is largely defined by the eras of three coaches -- UNC's Dean Smith, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and NC State's Jim Valvano -- and that's also the case for the women. Sylvia Hatchell, who coached at UNC from 1986 to 2019, and the late Kay Yow, who was at NC State from 1975 until her death in 2009, were born and raised in North Carolina. Gail Goestenkors, who was at Duke from 1992 to 2007, is from Michigan.

They intersected during the 15 years Goestenkors was in Durham, which was also the peak of Triangle women's hoops. The programs had all of their women's Final Four appearances in that stretch: North Carolina in 1994, 2006 and 2007; NC State in 1998; Duke in 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2006.

The Tar Heels won the Triangle's lone national championship in women's basketball in 1994. Duke made two NCAA finals, losing both in 1999 and 2006. NC State lost to Tennessee in the semifinal of its lone Final Four.

During that period, the programs dominated the ACC, as either North Carolina or Duke won 11 of the 15 league tournament titles. (Yow's NC State teams won ACC tournament titles in 1980, '85, '87 and '91.)

It was also a time of great players. Duke's Alana Beard and Lindsey Harding, UNC's Erlana Larkins, Ivory Latta and Camille Little, and NC State's Chasity Melvin all played at least nine seasons in the WNBA, which launched in 1997. Beard (Los Angeles Sparks), Larkins (Indiana Fever) and Little (Seattle Storm) won WNBA championships.

Celeste Taylor makes a great defensive play for the steal

Celeste Taylor makes a great defensive play for the steal

But it's a different ACC now: Two women's hoops powers joined the league -- Notre Dame (2013-14) and Louisville (2014-15). Between 2014 and 2019, the Irish won five ACC tournament championships and the Cardinals took the other one.

NC State -- which like Duke and UNC is an original ACC member -- has won the past three ACC tournaments and reached the Elite Eight last season.

"This is a state that loves basketball, and it's been a premier sport for the women's programs at these three schools," Banghart said. "I know we're all building back to that. It's time, right?"

UNC's Kennedy Todd-Williams takes it coast-to-coast

Kennedy Todd-Williams gets the steal and takes it for an and-1 layup finish.

Duke has one player from North Carolina: Reigan Richardson of Charlotte. She is among 11 Blue Devils who have transferred in from other schools.

"Most of my team has never played in these [rivalry] games before," Lawson said. "They weren't at Duke last year."

In contrast, Tar Heels juniors Anya Poole (Raleigh) and Kennedy Todd-Williams (Jacksonville) grew up in North Carolina and have known about the Triangle rivalries all their lives.

"I was in a split household," Poole said with a grin. "My mom doesn't want me to say this, but she was a Duke fan. My dad was a Carolina fan. And then all of my AAU coaches were NC State alumni. So I was like, 'I don't know who I want to go for. You know what? I'll just be in the middle. I'll root for all three.'"

Then she and Todd-Williams were on an official recruiting visit to North Carolina at the same time, and it clicked for Poole: She wanted to be a Tar Heel. Todd-Williams never had a doubt.

"I was set on going to Carolina since like sixth grade, honestly," Todd-Williams said. "I was so tunnel visioned. Nobody could convince me I was going anywhere else."

But whether you were born into the rivalries, it doesn't take long to get the gist of them.

Banghart, a player and then coach in the Ivy League, was aware of Duke-UNC since childhood but admits she knew less about both schools' rivalries with NC State. Then the first season after she came to UNC from Princeton, the unranked Tar Heels had an early-January game against then-No. 9 NC State in Chapel Hill. The light switch went on for Banghart as soon as she stepped on court: "Wait, this is different."

Duke has not been to the NCAA tournament since 2018 -- the Blue Devils played just four games in Lawson's first season, 2020-21, then opted out because of COVID-19 concerns -- but the Blue Devils showed progress at 17-13 last season.

Duke's only loss this season was to UConn on a neutral court at the Phil Knight Legacy tournament in Portland, Oregon, in November. The Blue Devils' ACC success thus far has included wins over then-No. 6 NC State 72-58 in Raleigh on Dec. 29, and 63-56 against Louisville on Jan. 1. The Cardinals have struggled somewhat after losing several key players off last year's Final Four team, but they are still 5-2 in the ACC.

"I will say this about my team: They play really hard," Lawson said. "You might say, 'Well, coach, they're supposed to.' But you can watch basketball and see if everybody's doing that. Man, we get after it."

The Blue Devils will try to do that against the Tar Heels just as much as with anyone else -- but it is North Carolina. It is a little more special. Same for the end of next month, when Duke will close the regular season against NC State (Feb. 23) and North Carolina (Feb. 26). Meanwhile, the second North Carolina-NC State game is Feb. 16.

"It's just fun," said Poole, who knows Duke's Richardson and NC State's Saniya Rivers (Wilmington) their from AAU playing days in North Carolina. "Maybe going into these games is a little intimidating at first. But as you get used to it, that fuels you. It gives you more fire."