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Tuesday January 25th, 2022 3:54AM

Big-name women's basketball programs returning to prominence

By The Associated Press
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Kellie Harper is working to return the Tennessee women’s basketball program back to being a title contender and has the Lady Vols closer to their traditionally elite status.

She's got company at other big-name programs, too.

The Lady Vols are ranked fifth in Harper’s third season at her alma mater. Tennessee is among a group of AP Top 25 teams returning to prominence after recent coaching changes. Teams like No. 12 LSU, No. 15 Georgia Tech, No. 16 Duke, No. 20 Notre Dame, No. 21 North Carolina and No. 23 Oklahoma are thriving and primed to make a postseason impact under coaches hired since 2019.

Two of those teams, UNC and Notre Dame, meet Sunday.

“You don’t just push a button and win games,” Harper said after Thursday’s win at Vanderbilt. “There’s a lot that goes into it, a lot on the court, off the court, you have the right personnel. You’ve got to have the right system. … There’s a lot of basketball left to be played, so we’re looking at it as that’s a lot of opportunities for growth for us.”

As Harper noted, there's still about two months left until Selection Sunday. Yet these teams have put themselves in contention to host early round NCAA Tournament games.

“The teams we’re talking about are actually a part of the conversation on the national scene now,” said Debbie Antonelli, a college basketball analyst for multiple outlets, including ESPN. “None of those teams were talked about three years ago.

“Tennessee wasn’t in the mix to go to the Final Four. North Carolina, Duke, they weren’t in the mix to go to the Final Four. Oklahoma wasn’t discussed as a top-16 team that could host the first and second round. And that’s the big key in the women’s game, that’s a huge piece of it.”

So far, the Lady Vols (16-1) are best positioned for that along with the Tigers (16-2). LSU lured three-time national champion and Hall of Famer Kim Mulkey from Baylor last spring to spark a program that hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2014.

At Georgia Tech, third-year coach Nell Fortner took the Yellow Jackets (13-3) to the Sweet 16 last year in the program’s first NCAA trip since 2014. She has also provided stability after the school fired longtime coach MaChelle Joseph, while Courtney Banghart took over at North Carolina around the same time following a tumultuous period resulting in the resignation of Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell.

For Banghart, who left Princeton after 12 years, the formula started with diving into recruiting, then sprinkling in graduate-transfer help. Her first recruiting class was ranked No. 11 by ESPN and headlined by five-star prospect Deja Kelly, now a sophomore and the UNC's top scorer at 17.6 points. Her next class checked in at No. 3, behind only South Carolina and UConn.

As a result, the Tar Heels (14-1) are in the AP Top 25 for the first time since the 2015-16 preseason poll.

“There’s so many different styles,” Banghart said. “It’s like the NBA. … There’s multiple ways to build a team. One is through the draft and one is through the trade wires. And that’s sort of how it is in college; one is through your recruiting and one is through your transfer process. You’re irresponsible not to monitor both.”

A few miles away at rival Duke, second-year coach Kara Lawson has taken a different approach. The Blue Devils – who called off their season after four games in Lawson’s debut year – restocked with seven power-conference transfers, with Elizabeth Balogun (Louisville), Lexi Gordon (Texas Tech) and Celeste Taylor (Texas) as regular starters in a balanced offense.

Duke (11-3) is ranked this year for the first time since the 2018-19 preseason poll.

“I’ve felt since the beginning of the year … we were a team that would continue to grow, but have a chance to have a higher level of growth than maybe some other teams because we’d gain that continuity as the season goes along,” Lawson said. “We’re gaining it on the fly.”

At Notre Dame, second-year coach Niele Ivey has the Fighting Irish (12-3) rolling again after it posted a losing record in Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw’s final season followed by a 10-10 season in Ivey’s debut.

Ivey credited the arrival of backcourt help in McDonald’s All-American Sonia Citron and fellow freshman Olivia Miles, who leads the country by averaging 7.8 assists. The team also added Stanford graduate transfer Maya Dodson to improved returnees.

“They understand the legacy and they understand this program,” Ivey said. “So our goal this summer was to continue working to get back that Notre Dame that everybody knows and play at a high level.”

And at Oklahoma, the Sooners (14-2) are ranked for the first time since early in the 2017-18 season in their first year under Jennie Baranczyk, who left Drake to take over for retired Sherri Coale.

Oklahoma was 32-52 through the past three seasons, but is coming off its first win against Baylor since 2015.

“I love the balance that we have. I love the believe that we have. I love that we just kept playing,” Baranczyk said afterward. “When we focus on ourselves and just play like that and share the ball, it’s really fun. The scoreboard then takes care of itself when we do that.”

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AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

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More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-womens-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP Sports, AP Online Basketball, College Sports, AP Online - Georgia News, AP Sports - Women's College Basketball
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