By R.L. Bynum
Last season, Courtney Banghart led a team full of players she had never coached. Even though she is about to begin her second season as North Carolina’s women’s basketball coach, it feels like a similar experience this year with so many departures and arrivals.
With only three players back who played last season — 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 — Banghart didn’t have the luxury this time around to play a couple of exhibitions.
She said that Wednesday’s 1 p.m. opener at Carmichael Arena against Radford (ACC Network Extra) will feel like a scrimmage.
Radford (17-12 last season) at North Carolina (16-14)
— 1 p.m. Wednesday, ACC Network Extra (online only)
— UNC leads the series 8-3
“I don’t really know what to expect,” she said Tuesday of going into the opener without a scrimmage given the huge roster turnover. “A scrimmage is important. It’s the first time your team plays against a jersey that doesn’t look like yours. I hope we respond well to that and lean on some older guys to help us through that and younger guys’ enthusiasm to kind of play through it.”
Less than 24 hours away from the opener, Banghart still wasn’t sure which five players she’ll start. There are plenty of candidates, including 5-foot-11 graduate transfers Petra Holešínska and Stephanie Watts, 6-2 redshirt junior forward Jaelynn Murray and three freshmen: five-star 5–8 guard Deja Kelly, five-star 6–2 forward Anya Poole and four-star 5–11 guard Kennedy Todd-Williams.
“Having an opportunity to just them get inside the lines and gain some experience, that will better tell us where our holes are,” Banghart said. “Because we know what our holes are in terms of practices but that’s kind of irrelevant. We’ll find out more against somebody else where our holes are and where our strengths are. So, yeah, just the experience is going to be critical at this point.”
There are plenty of potential leaders on her roster, including three who are used to carrying the scoring load.
Bailey is the leading returning scorer (14.7 points per game) and rebounder (9.3) but Holešínská led Illinois in scoring (12.6) and 3-point shooting (73 3s, shooting 41%) last season and Watts averaged 15.2 points per game two seasons ago for the Tar Heels.
Bailey, a preseason All-ACC selection, leads that veteran trio.
“We joke that she, Stef and Petra are older than I am. It’s kind of a joke but almost true and Janelle also is always a tough matchup because she’s got such physicality,” Banghart said. “If you go to her early and often you get them in foul trouble, you’re in business.”
Holešínská attempted an average of 5.7 3-point shots per game last season for the Illini, and she, Watts and Kelly will give the Tar Heels the outside punch to complement Bailey’s inside game.
“Petra can really stretch the defense,” Banghart said. “I think teams know that, and so it’s going to be important that Watts and Deja and others shoot well, too, so that she can get some of those off. But she also can really go off the dribble. I told her she’s way better off the dribble than was advertised, so I’m happy with that.”
One of the versatile players who will be able to help the Tar Heels in many areas is Murray, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. She started 29 games her freshman year and played in 30 games her sophomore year.
“She’s got a lot of experience and where there are some post players that are probably ahead of her in terms of what they can provide offensively and defensively over a sustained game, she has the experience that will allow her to ebb and flow throughout a different lineup,” Banghart said. “She’s gotten some time at the three spot, which is more of a perimeter-facing player, as well as the energy that she can provide as a four man and even defending a five man. So, Jaelynn’s calling card is going to be being ready to play a variety of positions and continue to be the barometer of our team’s well-being in terms of how they compete and stay together.”
The team won’t be all that’s different on Wednesday. The player benches will be back on the traditional side closest to the Carmichael bleachers, which will be pulled back and covered by a banner. The change is to make way for a bench area that includes five rows of five people.
Although the arena will be mostly empty, there will be crowd noise piped in to provide more of a game day feel.
It may not feel like a normal UNC home game but there will be plenty of excitement to see how this talented Tar Heels roster will mesh.