By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Coach Courtney Banghart preaches that the game is won with good defense and bemoaned a stretch of the opener when her North Carolina women’s basketball team “stopped defending.”
There were no such issues Saturday afternoon in an impressive 96–35 victory over UNCG at Carmichael Arena. With the Tar Heels’ offense shifting into overdrive after the first five minutes, it was an impressive display that suggests this team has a high ceiling.
“Fun to see this team compete,” Banghart said. “I feel like it’s a group that, when you have depth — I’ve been saying all year — you have accountabilities and this group wants to be good and everyone could say it. But how you prove it is how you continue to get better as the days go on and we were better today defensively than we were the other day. Obviously, I think that if we continue that process, this young team will continue to grow and that’s the goal.”
Last season, UNCG (0–1) was 16th in the country in defensive scoring with 55.3 points per game. UNC nearly had that total with a 51–11 halftime lead after shooting 78.6% in the second quarter.
Carolina (2–0) pulled away from a 7–6 lead with a 29-0 run, held the Spartans (0-1) to 11 first-half points and rolled behind 15 points from freshman Anya Poole and 14 from graduate transfer Petra Holešínská.
Freshman point guard Deja Kelly (top photo) had another good floor game, collecting 13 points, five assists and one steal, although she turned it over four times. Sophomore Ariel Young came off the bench for a double-double with all 11 of her points and nine of her team-leading 10 rebounds in the fourth quarter. All 12 players played and although Kennady Tucker was the only Tar Heel who didn’t score, she shared the team lead in assists at five with Kelly.
The 186 points through two games are the most since the 2011–12 team scored 200 against Gardner-Webb and USC Upstate.
The first 12 points of that big run came after Poole, graduate transfer Stephanie Watts and freshman Alyssa Ustby entered the game. That run was, you guessed it, fueled by defense.
“It’s just the running, us getting up and down the floor,” said Poole, who is a Southeast Raleigh High School graduate. “We harp on posts, getting to the basket, rim running and getting down there first. So that’s what we basically did, try to push the ball and transition because we knew that if we pushed that we could get easy points.”
It was the largest margin of victory under Banghart, bettering the 80-40 win last November over Navy. The 96 points bettered the highest total under Banghart of 92 reached twice last season (in a 92-37 win over Western Carolina in her first game as UNC coach and in a 92-53 victory over N.C. Central.)
The numbers show the work done on the defensive end. The Tar Heels blocked four shots, got seven steals and outscored the Spartans 15-0 on fast-break points. UNC shot 56.3% from the floor and outscored UNCG 46-6 on inside points.
“Everything that the coaches harped on from yesterday about what we did wrong, we tweaked it and we altered it and we found a new way to redo it rather than staying on what we did last game,” Poole said of the defensive effort compared to how it was in the opening-game win over Radford.
This team has better length and speed than last season, and UNCG painfully discovered that as the Tar Heels quickly got into gaps and caused havoc on the defensive end.
There was a consistent theme in explaining the better play on defense: communication.
“Being on each other through each possession to make sure that we will keep each other accountable and doing the things we need to do on defense,” said center Janelle Bailey, who had 10 points and eight rebounds in 21 minutes. “I think our communication is something we harped on not just for this week or the past few days and for last game, but just overall over the past few months. It’s gotten better and it’s showing on the court now.”
Banghart is like many coaches who implore her players to talk a lot on defense. She has a young team and knows that young players might wait until they know what’s going on to talk. Saturday, there was more activity going on earlier.
“We say talking to the ball,” she said. “I think that’s my job, whether you have an experienced team or young team, is helping them understand the game as quickly as you do, and the more they can, the sooner they can figure it out, the better. And this young team, they’re figuring it out.”
The Tar Heels made it nearly impossible for UNCG to get anything going offensively, and that got worse when two starters — center Lily Izundu and guard Cece Crudup — each picked up their third fouls in the second quarter.
The game marked the season debuts for Watts and Kennady Tucker, who sat out the opening-game win over Radford with injuries.
In her first game as a Tar Heel since graduating from UNC in 2019 for Watts, who missed last season with an injury while a student at Southern California.
Watts, who had four points, three rebounds, four assists and four steals, showed that her speed is still a potent weapon. She drove by two UNCG defenders for a layup as she helped spark the first 12 points of that 29-0 run. Her speed was evident when she broke free for a layup in the second quarter off of a long pass from Kelly.
“It was good to have her back,” Bailey said. “I definitely missed playing with her and I’m sure she was excited. She definitely showed what she can bring to the table and I’m really excited to just continue to play with her this season.”
As expected, Holešínská kept hitting from the perimeter, going 4 of 5 from 3-point range. UNCG had plenty more to worry about outside the arc as Poole made both of her 3-point tries and Alexandra Zelaya and Kennedy Todd-Williams also hit 3s.
You’re going to win a lot of games shooting 45% from 3-point range.
Anybody who saw Poole play for Southeast Raleigh might be surprised to see that she’s become a threat from the perimeter since that wasn’t part of her game in high school for the 6-2 forward. Banghart is behind this expansion of her game.
“I told her as soon as she sees herself through the eyes that I have, she’ll really believe in herself. You know the kid’s really good,” Banghart said. “She got a high motor. She’s a great leader. She’s really coachable. She only started playing basketball in seventh grade. So, she’s really malleable and we do a lot of face-up work with her and making her switch on the perimeter and just do things. She’s like, ‘I don’t do that’ and it’s like, ‘now you do.’ So, she’s like all of those young guys. She just wants to be good and I think she really trusted that we’re going to get her there.”
Poole is happy to expand her game.
“They’re not gonna make me just a post player,” she said. “They’re trying to pull me out so that’s something that I have to get used to doing because Coach Banghart wants me to shoot the ball. So, I’m gonna try to shoot it more.”
Carolina continues a hectic five-games-in-12-days stretch with a 1 p.m. home game Sunday against High Point. The Tar Heels then play South Carolina State at home on Thursday at 6 p.m.
North Carolina 96, UNCG 35
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communication