Now that they have figured it out on defense, the offense really came around in big win over Syracuse

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL —  Seeing the big picture and watching her North Carolina women’s basketball team grow, Coach Courtney Banghart wasn’t worried when the Tar Heels narrowly lost their first two ACC games because of the progress she saw.

That’s why she wasn’t all that surprised when Carolina took control early, never trailed and knocked off No. 18 Syracuse 92–68 on Thursday for its first ACC wins in three tries.

For the players, though, the big victory was a huge boost.

“I have a pretty good sense of where we are and in terms of where we need to go and how good we can be and how good we are,” Banghart said Friday. “But, you know, these guys are student-athletes. They’re looking at the scoreboard. They’re looking at their record, right? And so a loss hurts them at times differently than it hurts me because I can see the big picture. I’m just so happy for them because I didn’t need that to see how good we’ve been getting but they did. And so I think that helps with the confidence.”

Success in Banghart’s system all starts with defense, and it’s the progress on that end that has allowed practices to focus more on getting better on offense. All of that came together against the Orange. An end to the perimeter shooting struggles, better free-throw shooting and reducing the number of turnovers combined to produce a dominating evening for the Tar Heels (6–2, 1–2 ACC).

Carolina’s young team is starting to figure it out.

“We spent most of our preseason on the defensive end building our foundation,” Banghart said. “They’re building our principles, solidifying how we’re going to rotate, so we didn’t spend enough time on the offensive end because, again, wanting to build this the right way.”

The shift in practice came after the progress Banghart saw during the Tar Heels’ 67–63 loss at Miami on Monday. Her team knew what it was supposed to do on defense. 

Wake Forest (4–2, 1–1 ACC) at North Carolina (6–2, 1–2)
1 p.m. Sunday, Carmichael Arena, ACC Network Extra (ESPN3)

“They’ve given me the freedom to now shift to the offensive end and, after only two days, you saw the growth that we were able to make,” Banghart said of the performance against Syracuse. “So, we’re going to continue to work on the offensive end to make the same steps that we made defensively to be improved. Doing that, I think we’ll just continue to get better.”

The big difference against the Orange was ball movement rather than players trying to create offense on their own.

“It was more just a lot of people trying to solve the problem as opposed to understanding that the more the ball moves, the more it works itself out,” she said. “So, we really stress ball movement, and I will continue to do that.”

Two players who made a huge difference against Syracuse were freshman point guard Deja Kelly with her ability to attack the Orange’s press (she collected career highs of 22 points, eight assists and five rebounds) and make better decisions and center Janelle Bailey’s steady play inside.

Bailey played her finest game of the season with 25 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block. Her better mobility this season has helped the Tar Heels switch effectively on screens, which was difficult to do last season. She’s also figuring out how to be more of a threat on offense.

“I think she’s starting to find her face-up game,” Banghart said. “She was just looking to pound people to start the season and I think her game is actually more of a finesse game with a power element versus just a power player. So, I think she’s playing to our strengths a little bit more. But she’s is leading a young team, not just in age but in experience. So, she’s been patient, and I appreciate that.”

The Tar Heels won’t lack motivation when Wake Forest (4–2, 1–1) visits Carmichael Arena at 1 p.m. Sunday (ACC Network Extra) in their last game before going home for the Christmas break.

The first meeting in Winston-Salem featured poor shooting and plenty of turnovers from both teams, but the Demon Deacons held on for a 57–54 victory after Ariel Young’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer went off the front of the rim.

It was an ugly game. Banghart admits that she only watched the tape of that Wake Forest game once and won’t be watching it again.

A key for the Tar Heels will be to limit the success of Deacons star Ivana Raca, who was held to five points in their 79–65 loss at N.C. State on Thursday. UNC did a good job of containing her for most of the game, but Raca ended up with 14 points, enough at the end to overcome the Tar Heels.

Carolina’s players have been in their campus bubble since July but will go home to their families for the first time in months after Sunday’s game. They’ll reconvene before the Tar Heels visit Syracuse on New Year’s Eve.

During a pandemic, there are two levels of winning. One is to be smart enough with protocols to be able to play games and then actually winning games. The team has been getting it right on the first level but it hasn’t been easy.

“I tell my young guys, ‘I know you thought college was supposed to be cooler than high school and I promise you it is. Just not this year.’ ” Banghart said. “They come to college and they’re all excited to come into Carolina, and then they’re told they can’t leave their dorm room, except to come practice, not even to go to class. They can’t meet anybody. They can’t socialize. They can’t date anybody. They just sort of are living in their bubble. That’s a really hard thing to do.”

After the team went through all of that and did all the right things, she wasn’t about to tell them that they couldn’t go home for Christmas.

“I’m a mom, and to not have my kids home for the holiday would be really hard,” Banghart said. “Had I known this is how it was going to go, I wouldn’t have brought them back in July. So, they’re going to break our bubble after Wake Forest and we’re gonna do it very thoughtfully and we’re going to continue to maintain our expectations and our travel protocols.”

The first order of business, though, will be a bit of revenge against the Deacons.

UNC statistics

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications

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