By R.L. Bynum
Facing adversity for the first time in three games, North Carolina got a boost from an old favorite of Tar Heels fans who is back for her final college season.
After struggling with her shot in her first game Saturday while having a good floor game, Stephanie Watts put it all together Sunday against High Point. She scored 21 points and put up a double-double off the bench to help the Tar Heels rally from a 21-point first-quarter deficit for a 95–70 victory at Carmichael Arena.
It was the second-largest comeback in ACC women’s basketball history, bettered only by Notre Dame’s rally from 23 points down against Tennessee in 2018. And the Irish didn’t win by 25; they only won by 14.
The young UNC team (3-0) showed impressive resilience with the help of veteran leadership when nothing seemed to go right early. A 14–2 run late in the third quarter put the Tar Heels up 60–55. After a 16–1 fourth-quarter run, UNC was coasting.
“Thank God for experience,” second-year UNC coach Courtney Banghart said, pointing to Watts, a graduate transfer, senior Janelle Bailey (15 points and 9 rebounds) and graduate transfer Petra Holešínská (12 points and 2 assists). “We’ve got a lot of pieces. But in some games, what you need is those that have been there before and hats off to Janelle and to Watts and obviously to Petra, who sort of flexed her muscle when we needed it.”
With that kind of deficit, the comeback was gradual, with UNC trailing 43-38 at halftime. After the Tar Heels led 2-0, they didn’t lead again until Holešínská’s 3-pointer with 2:51 remaining in the third quarter gave them the lead for good at 58-55.
A lot of coaches trailing by 21 points early would have been yelling at their players during an animated time out, but that’s not Banghart’s style.
The calm approach worked.
“I think if things don’t go well, it’s so easy just to start yelling at them,” Banghart said. “But then it’s them versus me and that’s not what we want. We’re all in this together. All I know is to make this a team game and that’s what we did. It doesn’t help to yell; it helps to teach. That’s what I’m always going to do.”
It was a stat-stuffing afternoon for Watts, with team-highs in points, rebounds (12), assists (6) and steals (5), in addition to blocking a shot.
“Her stat line is one of the better stat lines I’ve seen in a game when we needed her,” Banghart said.
Freshman guard Alyssa Ustby had a double-double off the bench with 15 points and 11 rebounds in addition to 2 steals and a block. Freshman Anya Poole pitched in 15 points and 6 rebounds off the bench.
“I was excited about how the team just stuck together through a little bit of adversity in the beginning,” Watts said. “We never hung our heads down. We just kept playing the whole game. Basketball is a game of ups and downs and we know that. So, we just kept playing hard and stuck together throughout some adversity.”
Although Banghart was calm during early time outs, she explained what had to change.
“I don’t want to come across like I’m always just telling them things are all right,” Banghart said. “When you’re down in the first quarter of a four-quarter game, things aren’t all right. You just have to make some adjustments, and I thought on the offensive end, they didn’t take bad shots in the first half but they settled. The beauty of offenses is you determine the shot you take. So, sure, a 15-foot jump shot or 3-point shot’s a great shot if it goes in. And if it doesn’t, we should look at different shots. So, I just challenged them to understand their shot selection.”
UNC fell behind 15–2 with all 15 High Point points coming from the Panthers’ Skyler Curran, who made her first four 3-point attempts. She went out with two fouls with 5:47 left in the second quarter. After scoring 22 first-quarter points, she went scoreless in the second quarter, finished with 28 points and picked up her fourth foul at the end of the third quarter.
The Tar Heels slowed Curran with length. Watts, Kennedy Todd-Williams and Ustby all played her more tightly and didn’t switch on all screens. When Watts and Poole entered the game with 5:40 left in the first quarter, UNC was behind 17-2 and proceeded to start gradually chipping away at the lead.
“We forced her to take 12 more inches away from the arc and then we also switched up our defenses a little bit and then she started to miss some shots,” Banghart said.
Guarding a hot 3-point shooter has been a struggle in recent years for Carolina. But after the first quarter, that wasn’t a problem Sunday.
“That was just applying more ball pressure,” Ustby said. “So, the ball couldn’t move as quick and then the girl who is on [Curran] could get up on her a lot easier and contest her shots.”
Watts said that stopping Curran couldn’t have happened without all five players on the court making the strategy work.
“I think that just is attributed to buying in on the defensive end. We just kind of came together as a team and said, ‘OK, we’re picking up the energy right here, right now,’ and everyone was just able to buy into that and brought energy. My teammates just picked everyone up and said, ‘this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to get stops.’ And, you know, we all bought in, so it was just great energy.”
Watts transferred after her junior season at UNC, intending to play at Southern Cal last season as a graduate student. However, she needed surgery to remove a cyst in her right knee and only played four games. She missed the opener against Radford with a left ankle sprain but is now 100%.
She was 9 of 15 from the floor after going 2 of 8 Saturday against UNCG.
“I think it was just getting back into the swing of game action,” Watts said, “I’m really just working my way back into real game situations and they just put me in good spots on the floor to score.”
Her return to Chapel Hill to play for Banghart is already paying dividends.
It seems like ages ago that Watts was the ACC freshman of the year in the 2015-16 season. She left plenty of good memories for Tar Heels fans before she went to USC, such as the 39 points and 10 3-pointers against Charleston Southern in the 2016-17 season or the 82 3-pointers she made during the 2018-19 season.
The 21 points were the most by Watts since her last double-double when she collected 22 points and 14 rebounds at Miami on Jan. 20, 2019, in a 76-68 loss.
In her first two games, Watts seems to be faster than two years ago. A sixth year seemingly has brought a sixth gear.
“I feel it,” she said. “My body feels really good. I feel like I’ve been just working to get my legs back strong and I feel really good, explosive and faster.”
When she played under Coach Sylvia Hatchell for three seasons, the Tar Heels always played fast but Watts says there’s a little different approach now.
“We play fast but I think now we’re playing fast and in control,” Watts said. “We’re finding everyone for good looks. We’re pushing the floor but we’re not trying to rush. So, I think there’s a difference in how we’re playing: fast but not rushing.”
Watts said the team is “bought in” 100% with everybody picking their teammates up and she’s proud to be part of it.
Being on a team that’s 12 deep with little drop in talent is all new to her.
“I’ve never played on a team with this much depth,” Watts said. “You know, everyone can come in and contribute something, which is so exciting for this team.”
The depth shows in the numbers with 57 of UNC’s 95 points off the bench.
Ustby has been a solid and, at times, dazzling contributor off the bench playing guard after mostly playing the post during her high school career at Rochester, Minn. As with seemingly every freshman, Banghart is pushing Utsby to expand her game.
“In high school, I played all five spots whenever my coach needed me and whenever it was needed at the time,” she said. “So, that allowed me to develop a variety of skills to be able to score at all three levels. Here, our coaching staff really pushed me out of my comfort zone to get better at the skills that work well in our offense, so driving the ball and post-ups for me.”
It’s a bonus anytime you can get 11 rebounds out of a guard, and that helped Carolina to dominate the rebounding battle 56–29 despite going small much of the game against a smaller and quicker Panthers team. That led to starting forward Malu Tshitenge and forward Alexandra Zelaya playing only playing four minutes each.
“That was a team where you’re not going to use a lot of bigs because they’re so small,” Banghart said. “And if you’re not shooting well from 3, they can just pack it in. So, we had to go small to take advantages off the dribble.”
The Tar Heels get three days off before they play South Carolina State at home on Thursday at 6 p.m.
The Bulldogs, who went 3–27 last season, lost their opener 88–56 to Coastal Carolina on Saturday. They take a 13-game losing streak into Wednesday afternoon’s home game against Winthrop. South Carolina State’s coach is former Clemson coach and Virginia player Audra Smith.
North Carolina 95, High Point 70
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communication