UNC’s talented junior class will be the core of national contender next season

By R.L. Bynum

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Courtney Banghart got the North Carolina job, her first recruiting calls were to the members of the talented junior class that have put the Tar Heels program back in the national spotlight.

The core of that group — guard Deja Kelly, wing Kennedy Todd-Williams, forward Alyssa Ustby and center Anya Poole — fell short of its lofty goals with a heartbreaking 71–69 loss to Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Monday afternoon.

Todd-Williams, however, entered the transfer portal on Thursday, just three days after the sesaon-ending loss

Banghart is grateful that those four, along with junior reserve center Alexandra Zelaya, were the players she sought to create the winning culture with the right mix to build the program.

“They’re proving me right, not just because of their talent, but because of their fortitude, as you saw today,” Banghart said after the loss ended her fourth season in Chapel Hill during which her team battled injuries and was ranked as high as No. 6. “They’re competitive as hell, so it’s not always easy. But they work through it.”

Underseeded for the second consecutive season, the Tar Heels (22–11), nearly overcame the injustice of being stuck with a No. 6 seed and needing to beat the No. 12-ranked Buckeyes on their home court. They almost pulled it off, despite missing starting guard Eva Hodgson (concussion) for most of the fourth quarter and Kelly for nearly half of the final period.

“These guys have a ton of experience and that’s partly why their hearts are so heavy is that they had to rely on a lot of young guys today,” Banghart said of her juniors. “They’re all that’s right as competitors and people. What they’re wearing on the front of their jersey matters to ’em.”

Kelly says that the junior group has brought a determined mindset all three seasons and set lofty goals they still expect to reach.

“Coming up short, obviously it hurts all of us, I think the most,” said Kelly, who scored a game-high 22 points against Ohio State. “Just because we know the conversations we’ve had, the hard work that we’ve put in together. I think that’s why it means so much is because we’ve been through all of it literally together.

“And, personally, I wouldn’t want to go through it with anyone else,” Kelly said, fighting back emotion. “It just hurts. But, again, I think our group is really special. And we’re not done, but we’ll sit on this one for a little bit. But, yeah, I wouldn’t take anyone else.”

Banghart, who has brought in transfers during her time in Chapel Hill — notably guards Hodgson, Carlie Littlefield, Petra Holešínská and Stephanie Watts — didn’t dip into the transfer portal last offseason, opting for more stability and player development.

Just in the last two games, the Tar Heels have seen the other approach, with opponents that featured former ACC players — Ohio State’s Eboni Walker (a transfer from Syracuse) and St. John’s Jayla Everett (a Pittsburgh transfer) — who made immediate impacts. Maryland transfer Taylor Mikesell is Ohio State’s leading scorer.

In a landscape where players move from school to school every year, Carolina sees the benefits of players staying together and building chemistry.

Banghart firmly believes it’s good for players to stay together to promote continuity and development, and she’s seen the tremendous resolve of her returnees to get better.

“I think these guys, they’re really gym-hungry. They have got to do some work on their bodies to get healthy and ready to go. But, yeah, I’m excited because I know they will get better. They’re just ever-evolving — that’s partly what the story needs to be, is how much better these guys have gotten. They’re not just resting on their laurels of being good. So I just look forward to growing Toddy’s game and growing Alyssa’s game and growing Deja’s game in a way that they’re sitting up here talking about other things than being almost there.”

The potential for that group’s senior season is huge. The team losses starting guard Eva Hodgson and reserve center Malu Tshitenge — a major positive force in the locker room and when recruits visit the campus — as well as reserve guard Ariel Young. Destiny Adams made a big jump from her freshman to sophomore seasons, but entered the transfer portal on Wednesday.

Paulina Paris showed her talent during her freshman season, as did redshirt freshmen Kayla McPherson and Teonni Key. Joining them will be a talented incoming freshman class, led by five-star 6–4 stretch-five Ciera Toomey, the No. 4 Class of 2023 player. Also in that class are 5–7 point guard Reniya Kelly (No. 30), 6-3 center Rylee Grays (No. 90) and Indiana Player of the Year 6–1 wing Laila Hull.

Toomey scored 13 points and 15 rebounds Monday to advance her Dunmore team to the state 3-A championship game.

The loss at Ohio State will sting for the entire offseason, but will no doubt motivate a group that promises to contend for a national title in the senior season for that core group.

UNC roster

Here is Carolina’s projected roster with their class for next season listed.

YearNo.Returning playersPos.Height
RS Soph.11Kayla McPhersonPG5–8
Senior25Deja KellyPG5–8
Soph.2Paulina ParisPG5–9
Senior1Alyssa UstbyF6–1
Senior31Anya PooleF6–2
RS Soph.13Teonni KeyF6–4
Senior0Alexandra ZelayaF6–4
YearNo.Incoming transfers
Sophomore24Indya Nivar (Stanford)G5–10
Senior20Lexi Donarski (Iowa State)G6–0
Junior5Maria Gakdeng (Boston College)C6–3
ESPN rankNo.Incoming freshmenPos.Height
30th10Reniya Kelly (4 star; Alabama POY)PG5–7
4Laila Hull (Indiana POY)W6–1
90th22Rylee Grays (4 star Alabama POY)F6–3
4th21Ciera Toomey (5 star)F6–4
15Sydney Barker (walk-on)PG5–7
ESPN rankClass of 2024
26thBlanca Thomas (5 star)C6–5
65thJordan ZubichG5–11
ESPN rankClass of 2025
20thLanie Grant (5 star)G5–9
College careers overPos.Height
Eva HodgsonPG5–10
Ariel YoungW6–1
Malu TshitengeF6–3
Outgoing transfers
Kennedy Todd-Williams (Ole Miss)W6–0
Destiny Adams (Rutgers)F6–3

(current ranking)
9WednesdayW, 91–59Jackson StateHome1–0
12SaturdayW, 75–48TCUHome2–0
16WednesdayW, 93–25South Carolina StateHome3–0
20SundayW, 76–65James MadisonHarrisonburg, Va.4–0
Phil Knight Invitational
24ThursdayW, 85–79OregonPortland5–0
27SundayW, 73–64No. 17 Iowa State Portland6–0
DecemberACC/Big Ten Challenge
1ThursdayL, 87–63No. 2 IndianaBloomington, Ind.6–1
7WednesdayW, 64–42UNCWHome7–1
11SundayW, 99–67WoffordHome8–1
16FridayW, 89–47USC UpstateHome9–1
Jumpman Invitational
20TuesdayL, 76–68No. 18 MichiganCharlotte9–2
ACC season begins
29ThursdayL, 78–71Florida StateHome9–3, 0–1 ACC
1SundayL, 68–65No. 4
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, Va.9–4, 0–2 ACC
5ThursdayL, 62–58MiamiCoral Gables, Fla.9–5, 0–3 ACC
8SundayW, 60–50No. 10
Notre Dame
1–3 ACC
12ThursdayW, 70–59VirginiaCharlottesville, Va.11–5,
2–3 ACC
15SundayW, 56–47N.C. StateHome12–5,
3–3 ACC
19ThursdayW, 61–56No. 13 DukeHome13–5,
4–3 ACC
22SundayW, 70–57Georgia TechHome14–5,
5–3 ACC
26ThursdayW, 72–57PittsburghPittsburgh15–5,
6–3 ACC
29SundayW, 69–58ClemsonClemson16–5,
7–3 ACC
2ThursdayW, 73–62VirginiaHome17–5,
8–3 ACC
5SundayL, 62–55LouisvilleLouisville17–6,
8–4 ACC
9ThursdayL, 75–67SyracuseSyracuse17–7,
8–5 ACC
12SundayW, 73–55Boston CollegeHome18–7,
9–5 ACC
16ThursdayL, 77–66, OTN.C. StateRaleigh18–8,
9–6 ACC
19SundayW, 71–58Wake ForestHome19–8,
10–6 ACC
23ThursdayL, 61–59No. 4
Virginia Tech
10–7 ACC
26SundayW, 45–41No. 13 DukeDurham20–9,
10–8 ACC
MarchACC Tournament
2ThursdayW, 68–58Clemson Greensboro21–9
3FridayL, 44–40No. 13 Duke Greensboro21–10
NCAA tournament
18SaturdayW, 61–59 St. John’sColumbus, Ohio22–10
20MondayL, 71–69No. 12 Ohio State Columbus, Ohio22–11

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications


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