Notre Dame’s Niele Ivey and Duke’s Kara Lawson became first-time head coaches within months of each other early in the COVID-19 pandemic.
It didn’t take them long to build Atlantic Coast Conference winners.
Ivey’s 10th-ranked Fighting Irish edged Lawson’s 13th-ranked Blue Devils on the final day of the regular season for the No. 1 seed in this week’s league tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina. Their programs are the headliners for the five-day event, which features No. 8 Virginia Tech and No. 18 North Carolina, while Ivey was named the league’s coach of the year on Tuesday.
The third-year coaches have common steps in their journeys.
Both played under legendary coaches, Ivey as a national championship winner under Notre Dame Hall of Famer Muffet McGraw and Lawson reaching three Final Fours under the late Tennessee great Pat Summitt. Both played in the WNBA and were among the first women to earn NBA assistant coaching positions in 2019, Lawson with the Boston Celtics and Ivey with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Both are among the small group of Black women leading major college programs, coming amid increased equality conversations in the sport from prominent voices like two-time national champion Dawn Staley at South Carolina.
Notre Dame (24-4, 15-3 ACC) went 10-10 in Ivey’s first year, reached the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 last year and were picked to finish fourth in the ACC this year. The Irish have the top seed for the first time since 2019 after Sunday’s win at Louisville, though the status of star guard Olivia Miles is uncertain after she suffered an apparent knee injury.
“This is a huge moment for our program,” Ivey said of the win, “and a huge moment for me as their coach.”
Duke (24-5, 14-4) failed to secure the top seed in Sunday’s home loss to rival UNC, but the Blue Devils’ climb remains swift.
Lawson’s first season spanned just four games before the team shut down amid the pandemic. Two years later, after significant transfer-portal work, Duke has its best ACC finish since 2014 after being picked to finish seventh.
“I don’t really believe in timelines because I think when you set them, you predestine yourself to meet the timeline and never be ahead of it,” Lawson said last week.
“Those kids believed in me and they believed in each other, the other kids that were here,” she said. “That’s why we’re here, because of belief that they had in our program and the belief we have in each other. That’s never wavered and I think that’s a big reason why we’re here.”
Virginia Tech (24-4, 14-4) has hit new heights under Kenny Brooks, including its first trip to the ACC semifinals last year. Now the third-seeded Hokies arrive having won eight straight behind Elizabeth Kitley — who was named ACC player of the year for the second straight season Tuesday.
The 6-foot-6 senior averages 18.8 points and a league-best 10.7 rebounds. Last week she became the program’s all-time leading scorer and hit a winning jumperin the same game to beat North Carolina.
Things haven’t gone to plan for preseason favorite Louisville. The fourth-seeded Cardinals (21-10, 12-6) opened at No. 7 nationally but have been unranked since December, their first such stint in seven years.
“You’re playing during your regular season and the opportunity to play in your conference tournament, for seeding and then the NCAA Tournament,” coach Jeff Walz said after Sunday’s loss. “And I’ve got to do something to try to get them excited to do that.”
UNC (20-9, 11-7) is a seven seed despite spending five weeks inside the top 10. But the Tar Heels are healthy again after starters Alyssa Ustby (lower body) and Eva Hodgson (illness) returned from multi-game absences in the past week.
North Carolina State (19-10, 9-9) is the three-time reigning champion that spent seven weeks ranked in the top 10. But Wes Moore’s squad enters Greensboro just 8-9 since an 11-1 start, and he’s also “not real sure” whether leading scorer Diamond Johnson (12.3 points) will play due to a lingering ankle injury.
The ACC Tournament begins with 12th-seeded Wake Forest and 13th-seeded Virginia meeting in Wednesday’s first of three first-round games. Winners advance to Thursday’s second round headlined by fifth-seeded Florida State and sixth-seeded Miami.
Top-four seeds have byes into Friday’s quarterfinals. The championship game is Sunday.