By R.L. Bynum
Forget anything you saw from Coach Courtney Banghart’s first women’s basketball team at North Carolina last season.
She didn’t come to Chapel Hill for 16–14 seasons that end with eight consecutive losses. Yes, there were successful stretches, including a 9-game win streak, and a signature 66–60 victory over then-No. 9 N.C. State.
But she was forced to play a tight rotation most of the season, many times only six players deep. That made it difficult for her to hold players accountable for poor play because there weren’t many good options off the bench. It also meant a slower tempo than she prefers.
“That was tough to be a part of, for sure. It was tough to watch,” said Banghart, whose staff includes former UNC player Jackie Manuel, the director of player personnel, development and recruiting operations.
Center Janelle Bailey, a 6–4 senior center, forward Malu Tshitenga, a 6–3 sophomore forward, and 5–10 sophomore guard Kennady Tucker, a reserve last season, are the only players back who played last season.
Banghart told one of her former Princeton players that last season may have been the most challenging of her coaching career but this season’s team might be her favorite.
“It’s a totally different team,” said Banghart, whose team is picked to finish fourth in the loaded ACC. “The roster is different. There’s a lot more depth. There’s more talent. There’s another year of them getting used to my accountabilities. I think it’s just totally different. We have to do what we can to be inside the lines, be accountable — and on both ends — and we have to continue to develop the depth that will allow us to do that.”
Like all other coaches, she’s had to deal with the constraints of the pandemic that has basically put all of her players in an on-campus bubble for four months. To keep the group smaller, she only has two managers and uses five men’s junior varsity players as practice players. All of them are available because there will be no JV team this season.
“Those of you who know me know that I’m more of a happy idiot than I am a pessimist,” Banghart said. “So, I have been really optimistic since the start. The good news is that we’ve got a very new roster, and so we’ve been here since July.”
The Tar Heels’ rotation will be so deep that she’s not even sure who will start the Nov. 25 opener at home against Radford. Except for the three games Bailey missed, Banghart started the same five for all 30 games last season. She said she might have three starting lineups in the first three games.
“I think we’ll be able to play against a variety of opponents better,” Banghart said. “Obviously, we’ve got lots of different styles of play in our league. I think the biggest thing with the depth is that it helps with accountabilities. You need some guys to rotate to sort of elevate. There’s a few that have really evolved into being non-negotiable [starters] but we’re splitting hairs.”
The depth will mean that the Tar Heels’ tempo will turn up a few notches compared to last season.
“The buzzword in college hoops is to play fast. You need fast people to play fast. You need depth,” Banghart said. “Some people, they say they want to play fast and they have these giant bigs — they can’t move right — or these guards that are slow. So yeah, much faster in terms of offense to defense and much faster in terms of sliding on defense hitting the gaps. Because if you don’t do it, someone else will. So, yeah, the pace of play will be different.”
Her first UNC recruiting class, the freshmen on this year’s team, was the No. 11 class in the country. With that talent secured, Banghart added two graduate transfers in Petra Holešínská, a 5–10 Czech Republic guard who led Illinois in scoring last season, and Stephanie Watts, a 5–11 guard who returns to UNC program after an injury-shortened season at Southern Cal.
The five talented freshmen are five-star 5–8 guard Deja Kelly, five-star 6–2 forward Anya Poole, four-star 5–11 guard Kennedy Todd-Williams, 6–1 wing Alyssa Ustby and 6–4 forward Ali Zelaya.
“This is like no other team I’ve ever had,” Banghart said. “No one’s kind of along for the ride. And I think it’s just highly competitive. I think people realize that we’re not waiting for anybody. We’re moving.”
Todd-Williams played at Jacksonville High School and Poole played at Southeast Raleigh High, which means they cleared Banghart’s high bar for in-state players.
“I sort of say to the local kids if I offer you, it means I love you,” Banghart said. “Because nothing’s worse than having a local kid whose family’s there all the time and then they’re not playing. I always say that I’m slow to offer the local kids because I really want to make sure you know how much I want you.”
If that class wasn’t talented enough, on Wednesday UNC announced Banghart’s four-player freshman group for the 2021–22 season, which is ranked No. 2 in the country. That class includes Cary High School’s Teonni Key.
Banghart is building a program and getting the attention of the nation even if UNC didn’t make the preseason Top 25 poll.
“When we got here, we knew that one of my main responsibilities was to restore the talent at North Carolina, and in terms of both the immediate talent and the depth that we can bring to this program. So, we got right to it. It’s been really fun coaching them on a daily basis,” Banghart said of her current freshman class.
“And then, on top of that, we were hard at work already trying to secure the local talent and the best class nationally as well. And they fit how we want to play. I can’t tell you how hard we work for it and how happy we are that it’s official,” she said of the just-announced class of 2021.
All of that talent will mean that starters won’t have to play as many minutes. Bailey, who averaged 14.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game last season, also played 32.9 minutes per game. Banghart says that the preseason All-ACC team pick has the highest basketball IQ of anyone she’s ever coached.
“She’s in the best shape she’s ever been in,” Banghart said of Bailey. “And that will allow us to play faster and for her to play faster, which will help a lot. She can use her strength as an advocate, not as a crutch. So, that’s huge. I think also, she has a lot of renewed energy and talent on the roster.”
Banghart calls Kelly, left, a combo guard from San Antonio, a “lethal” scorer.
“God, she’s good,” Banghart said. “I think what makes Deja so good is that her handle, a little bit like [Stephen] Curry, allows her to not worry as much about the person guarding her. It’s helping her think about how the secondary defenders are guarding to make her read. And she loves film. She wants to be held accountable. She wants to be coached. She wants to be great. She’s not the princess prima donna.
“She wants to roll up her sleeves and what do you need? If I rip her on film and show her some clips where she didn’t do the right thing on defense or on check or whatnot, she makes an immediate change,” Banghart said. “She’s undersized and she’s better defensively than I thought. She’s not an elite there yet, but her growth in the last six weeks … her pace has gotten better. So, her learning curve is steep and she’s already pretty darn good.”
From the sound of it, most of the Tar Heels are pretty darn good. And the upcoming season will give fans a lot of fun nights as they watch the young team progress.