With a new coach leading a veteran team, the North Carolina State women are off to their best start in more than a decade.
That includes the program's first national ranking since one of its final seasons under late Hall of Fame coach Kay Yow.
The No. 20 Wolfpack (14-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) beat ranked LSU in nonconference play, then rallied from 10 down in the second half to beat then-No. 20 Syracuse last weekend in the league opener. Now first-year coach Wes Moore is pushing his team to maintain its surprising start heading into Thursday's game at No. 13 North Carolina.
A win would give N.C. State its first 2-0 start in ACC play since the 1999-2000 season, which was the last time the team started 14-1.
"I don't think that's so much about coaching or about me," Moore said. "It's about them. They wanted to step up and win so I think it started there. I always tell teams: It's your team, we're going to do as well as y'all want to do. I can't make you buy in, I can't make you work hard. We're going to do as well as you want to do — and these kids have wanted to do well."
It's the program's first ranking since ending the 2006-07 season at No. 18 after an emotional run to the NCAA round of 16 amid Yow's long fight with cancer.
Beating the rival Tar Heels (12-3, 0-1) would mark the program's first nine-game winning streak in 13 seasons.
Moore, a veteran coach with 572 career victories, built Chattanooga into a frequent Southern Conference champion and regular NCAA tournament team during 15 seasons there. An assistant to Yow from 1993-95, he returned last spring to replace fired coach Kellie Harper — who had guided the Wolfpack to some big wins against Duke and UNC but struggled to maintain momentum in her four seasons.
The Wolfpack's last NCAA tournament appearance came in 2010, during Harper's first season.
Debbie Antonelli, a former N.C. State player and TV college basketball analyst, said Moore was "the right person at the right time for the job."
"Duke and Carolina are so good, they recruit, they're always going to get the big names," Antonelli said. "N.C. State has to create a different way of doing it. That's why Wes is perfect because he is a crafty guy who has been grinding it out at the mid-major level. He had had incredible success at Chattanooga and he's built a brand for himself because he's so well-respected in the coaching community."
Moore has benefitted from the improvement of 6-foot-5 senior Markeisha Gatling, who went from averaging 9.6 points and 58 percent shooting last year to 15.9 points and 70 percent this year.
Gatling and 6-2 senior Kody Burke (14.3 points, 5.3 rebounds) provide a reliable 1-2 frontcourt punch. N.C. State also averages 19.3 assists per game, 10th-best nationally.
"I feel like we're understanding our roles more and more each game," Burke said. "It was difficult for me at first on where my shots were going to come from or where the emphasis was going to be in order for us to score. But I feel the more we practice and the more we play, we understand our roles. We share the ball really well. I'm just excited about this team."
Things won't get easier for the Wolfpack in the newly expanded ACC with games against No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 3 Duke and No. 6 Maryland.
"(The ranking) is good for recruiting, but to be honest with you, other than that I'd just as soon lay low in the grass and just keep on working," Moore said. "And not add any extra bulls-eyes to our back."
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap