Young Tar Heels pass first big test of the season

Watts scores 17 points to lead UNC’s women past a tough Charlotte team 

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — Facing its biggest challenge of the season, North Carolina’s talented young women’s basketball team met it with a strong finish.

The Tar Heels (5-0) used an 8-0 run in the last two minutes to pull away from a tough battle and beat Charlotte 81–75 on Sunday at Carmichael Arena.

Stephanie Watts, who got her first start of the season, delivered when the Tar Heels needed her, finishing with a team-high 17 points in addition to four assists and a steal. She made 7 of 8 free-throw attempts in the second half and twice made a pair of free throws in the last 3:17 to give UNC the lead.

“I thought we fought hard and stuck together,” Watts said. “We’re a young team, so that was our first little challenge of a game. I think we’re going to just grow and get better every single game.” 

A Mariah Linney 3-pointer gave Charlotte a 69–68 lead with 3:55 left but Watts gave UNC a 1-point lead with a pair of free throws with 3:17 left. A Watts drive at 2:45 gave UNC a 3-point lead at 72–69. 

But it was an Ariel Young 3-pointer from the left corner with 1:21 that gave the Tar Heels a 77–74 lead to accelerate that key late run.

“Good for her, because she spends a lot of time working on that shot, and the fact that she was in late shows you how much we trust her and what we need from her,” Banghart said. “She did a good job guarding the ball.”

Although Charlotte fell to 0-4, it is an experienced team that played both Clemson and Wake Forest tough. Octavia Jett-Wilson led the 49ers with 22 points.

With the level of competition ramping up, Banghart made a change in the starting lineup for the first time this season. She started Watts instead of freshman Kennedy Todd-Williams and freshman Anya Poole in place of Malu Tshitenge.

“She’s a dynamic player,” Banghart said of Watts. “She’s super-experienced. She’s a competitor, and she can change the game on both ends. She’s a two-way player so you know this is her time of the season. I didn’t want to sort of overuse her in the beginning part of the season and wanted to get the young guys a lot of experience, and they did that.”

Banghart played a lot of players through the first four games, but only nine Sunday. Of those, only seven played more than 10 minutes. Except for a key stretch in the last two minutes, at least two freshmen, and sometimes three or four, were on the court. 

With Charlotte’s zone and foul trouble for center Janelle Bailey helping to neutralize Carolina’s inside game, the Tar Heels played four guards for much of the game. Down the stretch, that meant a lot of Alyssa Ustby at the four and she made several big plays.

“I thought she did a really good job sliding over,” Banghart said of Ustby, who collected 13 points and six rebounds.

Freshman Alyssa Ustby played a lot at the four spot Sunday with UNC playing small ball and played well down the stretch with 13 points and six rebounds.

One reason UNC went small was to make it easier for the Tar Heels to switch on screens.

“We weren’t great at guarding their high ball-screen action, so it was easier for us to switch it,” Banghart said. “And we’ll get there, but our bigs aren’t ready yet to play in a fully switching environment.”

Down the stretch, the Tar Heels showed their toughness and resilience. Banghart had a clear message to her team.

“We said you’re gonna make a shot or you’re gonna get to the free-throw line and there’s nothing in between. Nothing,” Banghart said. “And we were pretty relentless there.”

In the end, Carolina leaned on its veteran leadership.

“We have a lot of freshmen and I feel like we’re showing them how hard you have to play in the ACC and that was definitely important for us and moving forward,” said Petra Holešínská, who had 13 points and a team-high five assists. “We didn’t panic. Obviously, they hit a couple of shots at the end. But we just executed and I feel like that was really important for us.”

Fouls had a huge impact on the game.

Bailey and Charlotte point guard Jada McMillan each picked up two fouls early and got their third fouls before halftime. By the fourth quarter, three Charlotte starters had four fouls and another fouled out. Bailey picked up her fourth foul with 9:04 left in the game and finished with nine points.

The 49ers’ foul issues gave UNC plenty of chances at the free-throw line. The Tar Heels took advantage, but not as much as UNC could have, going 25 of 37 from the line.

Perimeter shooting was huge as both teams made 10 of 24 3-point attempts. Four Tar Heels hit two (Holešínská, Watts, Kennedy-Williams and Young).

Freshman point guard Deja Kelly scored 11 points but had a tough floor game with two assists and eight turnovers. A few times, she couldn’t get entry passes over defenders and had them intercepted. 

Of the clips that Banghart said she would show her team, she noted that those eight turnovers would be included.

“I’d say the biggest thing I’m looking forward to watching back is clipping for our guys how hard you have to play on every possession,” Banghart said. “If you come up short and you don’t move properly on defense, they’re gonna take advantage of it. The margin of error is so small against good teams.”

UNC is unbeaten in regular-season nonconference games this season for the first time since the 2006–07 team that made the Final Four. That’s also the last season that the Tar Heels scored 80 or more points in five consecutive games to start a season.

It’s now on to ACC play as the Tar Heels visit Wake Forest on Thursday at 6 p.m. (ACC Network). The Demon Deacons finished nonconference play 3-1, losing their opener to No. 16 Arkansas 98-82 and beating the 49ers in their last game 78-75.

UNC 81, Charlotte 75

Photos courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications

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