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Local connections: Just because the ACC got shut out of the Final Fours this season doesn’t mean there’s not Carolinas connections

By Richard Walker

It’s been eight years since the ACC didn’t have at least one team in the men’s or women’s Final Four.

Kelvin Sampson during his Pembroke State baseball (left) and basketball careers.

That doesn’t mean the Carolinas don’t have any connections to this year’s Final Fours.

South Carolina’s women’s basketball team has the most, but Houston’s men’s basketball team and Connecticut’s women’s basketball team also have connections.

Houston’s connection is head coach Kelvin Sampson.

Sampson earned nine varsity letters as a three-sport athlete at old Pembroke, N.C., High School before staying close to home to play basketball and baseball at Pembroke State. Now named UNC-Pembroke, Sampson graduated from that school in 1978 before beginning his coaching career in 1978 as a graduate assistant at Michigan State.

Sampson eventually became a head coach at Montana Tech, Washington State, Oklahoma, Indiana and Houston. He’s also been a NBA assistant coach with the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets.

With the University of Houston, Sampson took over the program in the 2014-15 season and has guided it to five straight postseason appearances – and would’ve had six straight if not for the March 2020 start of the pandemic.

Former Forestview, Northside Christian and Gaston Day standout Nate Hinton, now a Dallas Mavericks’ rookie, was on Sampson’s previous two teams.

This season, Houston will take a 28-3 record into Saturday’s 5:14 p.m. semifinal game against state rival Baylor. UCLA meets Gonzaga at 8:34 in the other semifinal.

Dawn Staley during her Charlotte Sting career

In Friday’s women’s Final Four, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley takes her team with six Carolinas connections – including Staley – into a 6 p.m. semifinal against Stanford.

Staley, in her 13th season as Gamecocks’ head coach, spent seven seasons playing for the Charlotte Sting WNBA franchise. During that time with the Sting, one of the team’s assistant coaches (Fred Chmiel) is now a member of Staley’s South Carolina staff.

Other Carolinas connections for South Carolina are players Olivia Thompson, Lele Grissett and Elysa Wesolek and assistant coach Julette Law.

Thompson, a sophomore center, is a 2019 Lexington, S.C., graduate. Grissett, a junior guard, is a 2017 Durham Hillside, N.C., graduate, and Wesolek, a junior forward, is a 2018 Charleston, S.C., Northwood Academy graduate. And Law is a 1986 Florence, S.C., Wilson High graduate.

Finally, former N.C. High School Athletic Association female athlete of the year Shea Ralph is in her 13th season as an assistnnt coach at Connecticut. A 1996 Fayetteville Terry Sanford High graduate, Ralph was captain of Connecticut’s 2000 national title team, was drafted by the WNBA and has helped the Huskies to a Final Four in each of her 13 seasons helping Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma with six national titles.

South Carolina meets Stanford on Friday at 6 p.m. and Connecticut plays Arizona on Friday at 9:30 p.m.

Shea Ralph’s 2021 WNBA draft card