CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — It's already one of the best years for women's basketball at Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets are poised to make it even better.
They've set a school record with 12 Atlantic Coast Conference wins and received their best NCAA tournament seed. Now, coach MaChelle Joseph's team is the favorite in Chapel Hill to make it out of the opening weekend.
No. 4 seed Georgia Tech (24-8) faces 13th-seeded Sacred Heart (25-7) on Sunday in the first round of the Des Moines Regional.
The winner Tuesday plays fifth-seeded Georgetown (22-8) or 12th-seeded Fresno State (28-5), with that winner advancing to the round of 16 to play the team that emerges from top-seeded Baylor's corner of the bracket.
For Georgia Tech, that would be new territory.
The Yellow Jackets are making their sixth straight NCAA appearance but have never won more than one game in the tournament.
They refuse to peek at the regional semifinals just yet. After all, they know all too well what happens when they get ahead of themselves: 11th-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock surprised them in the first round two years ago.
"That was a hard lesson we had to learn in an NCAA tournament," Joseph said Saturday. "If you don't experience that, it's easy sometimes to look ahead and think, 'Well, we've played better teams or faster or more athletic teams.' But since that happened to us, it's put us in a situation where that will not happen."
The Yellow Jackets do have a few things going their way, though.
They've got their best seeding, topping the No. 5 they had last year. In addition to their school-record ACC win total, they've matched the 1-year-old single-season mark for victories.
And it also helps that they're playing in a venue where they know how to win.
A team that rode 45 minutes each way by bus to Gwinnett, Ga., for all of its home games — while their usual arena was being renovated — finally has something of a home-court advantage: They've claimed victories in each of their last two trips to Carmichael Arena, home to ACC rival North Carolina.
The Tar Heels would have been an automatic choice to play their four-team subregional on their home floor had they made the field of 64, but when they were left out, the selection committee sent Georgia Tech to Chapel Hill.
"To have the most wins in the history of our program and not play at home says a lot about this team and the strength and character of this team," Joseph said. "But at the same time, I never would have dreamed that this was where we were going to be sent. ... I know I feel very comfortable here."
The Yellow Jackets have had two weeks off to recharge after they reached the ACC championship game but lost to Maryland 68-65 despite 20-point performances by guard Tyaunna Marshall and post player Sasha Goodlett.
They'll face another challenge in trying to slow the Pioneers' Callan Taylor, the Northeast Conference player of the year who averaged 16.5 points and nearly 10 rebounds. She and NEC tournament MVP Ericka Norman helped Sacred Heart beat Monmouth last week to claim its third NCAA tournament berth — all since 2006. The Pioneers have never won a game in the tournament.
"This is our third (NEC) championship in seven years, and I think we've learned from each one," Sacred Heart coach Ed Swanson said. "We know what we're up against, a 13 seed going against a 4 seed, but we're extremely excited about the opportunity that presents (itself)."
The other opening-round game matches one of the nation's toughest defenses against one of its most prolific offenses.
Georgetown ranks eighth nationally, allowing just 51.9 points per game, and the only two teams to score at least 70 points on the Hoyas since Jan. 1 are No. 1 seeds in this tournament — Connecticut and Notre Dame.
"The more we can pressure a team and the more we can cause a team to turn the ball over will give us more opportunities to run and be a better transition offensive team," Georgetown coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. "We play 40 minutes of what we call tenacious defense. Some teams say that they press, but you're only a pressing team if you do it for 40 minutes. ... It really doesn't matter. We will press, and we will press the whole game."
Not that the Hoyas can't score, either. Sugar Rodgers, the only player in school history to make three all-Big East first teams, averaged a league-best 18.9 points, the highest average of any player in Chapel Hill this weekend. But points were hard to come by in their last game, a 39-32 loss to West Virginia in the league quarterfinals.
And they'll surely be tested by a Fresno State scoring machine that cracked the 70-point mark in every game but one during its 12-game winning streak earlier this season.
The Bulldogs lost only one Western Athletic Conference game this season, a one-point setback at San Jose State. Behind WAC MVP Ki-Ki Moore, a sophomore who scores nearly 17 points per game, they claimed their fifth straight NCAA berth with a 28-point win over Louisiana Tech in the league title game.
"I think you need to continue to attack Georgetown and not sit back and allow them to pressure you," Fresno State coach Adrian Wiggins said. "That will be fun, because we like to put a lot of pressure on opposing teams as well, so I am excited about that challenge within the game."