By R.L. Bynum
When North Carolina’s women got big victories over Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in the last week of the regular season, everybody assumed that the Tar Heels had the program’s ACC-record 28th NCAA berth locked up.
Everybody was right, but it came by the slimmest of margins.
According to the NCAA, the Tar Heels (13–10) were one of the last four to make the field. At No. 10, UNC is the lowest seed of the eight ACC teams in the tournament. No other conference has that many teams.
No. 10-seed UNC faces No. 7-seed Alabama (16–9) at noon Monday in San Antonio (ESPN) at the Alamodome South Court in the first round of the Hemisfair Region. Carolina beat Alabama in two previous NCAA tournament meetings, both second-round games in Chapel Hill.
Carolina beat the Tide 74–73 in overtime in 1993 and this is Alabama’s first time back in the tournament since the Tar Heels ousted the Tide 70–56 in 1999. This will be the Tide’s 11th NCAA appearance and 11th time facing Carolina.
Coach Courtney Banghart suggested that the tournament selection committee may not have paid attention to who UNC played in so narrowly placing her team into the field.
With victories over No. 1-seed N.C. State, No. 5-seed Georgia Tech, No. 7-seed Virginia Tech, No. 8-seed Syracuse and No. 9-seed Wake Forest, she thought her team should have been in by a more comfortable margin.
No. 10-seed North Carolina (13–10) vs. No. 7 Alabama (16–9)
First round, NCAA tournament Hemisfair Region
Noon Monday, ESPN
Alamodome South Court
“You look at your team’s readiness by looking at quality wins and bad losses and I think when you look at our quality wins, versus our bad losses, it wasn’t at all a bubble in my opinion,” said Banghart, who took her Princeton teams to the NCAA tournament eight times with seeds ranging from No. 8 to No. 12. “I think that the committee really has to pay attention to the details, the thin edges that separate these teams.”
UNC never played Virginia or Duke before they opted out, never played last-placed Boston College, played 12th-place Pittsburgh once and 11th-place Clemson once. Meanwhile, they played the Wolfpack twice and the Hokies three times.
“I give a lot of credit to the coaches in general,” Banghart said of the ACC. “We’ve been texting back and forth as an ACC coaching group. We’re happy for our league. We feel like it’s validated it.”
Banghart may get some extra insights into Alabama since first-year assistant coach Adrian Walters was on the Tide coaching staff last season.
UNC played in Texas the last time it made the NCAA field in 2019. The No. 9-seed Tar Heels lost to No. 8 California 92–72 in a first-round game played in Waco in the final game under Coach Sylvia Hatchell.
“I’ve obviously been in this thing before and it just never gets old,” Banghart said. “Coming from a tradition like Carolina, you don’t get in because of your tradition, just as Notre Dame. You have to earn it year after year after year and this group earned it. I’m really excited to be in it, knowing that there’s no bad teams in the tournament. So, we’ll have to be at our best, and I’m just humbled, as always, for this opportunity.”
Monday’s game will be a homecoming for freshman point guard Deja Kelly, who grew up in San Antonio and won a state title in her final high school game last season at the Alamodome. Her improved play in the last couple of weeks is a big reason why the Tar Heels earned an NCAA berth.
Kelly has averaged 19.2 points in the last five games after scoring a total of 19 in the previous six games.
“Deja Kelly’s playing better basketball,” Banghart said. “Everyone’s journey looks different, and her journey was a slower start than she would have liked. But we saw it in practice every day. She was getting better and as Deja has played better, we have played better.”
The Tar Heels have won five of their last seven games. That streak started when Banghart inserted Alyssa Ustby into the starting lineup for the home upset of N.C. State and went with a four-guard lineup that has helped UNC better push the tempo.
“When you start a guard at the four spot, it changes you on both ends,” Banghart said. “And, so, doing that really opened up a lot of space and allowed us to play faster and allowed us to stay in front of the ball better defensively. We didn’t concede as much in the rebounding that we thought we might, but yeah it was a pretty massive change. It wasn’t a click your heels and hope for it. It was a statistical and a strategy change in terms of personnel that has really helped our team.”
Ustby scored 20 points in that 76–69 win over the Pack on Feb. 7 and has averaged 12.5 points in the last seven games.
The UNC-Alabama winner faces either No. 2-seed Maryland or No. 15-seed Mount St. Mary’s on Wednesday, March 24. After Banghart’s only NCAA victory at Princeton, 80–70 as a No. 8 seed in 2014 over No. 9-seed Green Bay (the second NCAA win by an Ivy League school), her Tigers lost to No. 1-seed Maryland 85–70 in the second round.
The timing is much different for Banghart than when she was at Princeton and the Ivy League Tournament finished just before the NCAA announced the field. Monday’s game will be the Tar Heels’ first in 17 days since their 82–71 loss March 4 in the second round of the ACC Tournament to Wake Forest.
“Is it a positive? Not really, because Kentucky had a similar [situation] when we played them and almost beat them when I was at Princeton,” said Banghart, whose Tigers lost to the Wildcats 82–77 in her final game at Princeton in 2019. “I think there’s a chance to get healthy, there’s a chance to regroup, there’s a chance to breathe and take it in.”
Alabama didn’t finish the regular season well, losing three of its last four games, including a 75–63 loss in the second round of the SEC Tournament to South Carolina.
Senior 6–3 forward Jasmine Walker leads the Tide, averaging 19.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. Redshirt senior 5–7 guard Jordan Lewis averages 16.8 points and 4.2 assists per game and senior 6–3 forward Ariyah Copeland averages 15.0 points a game.
Alabama’s top five scorers also played when the Tide beat the Tar Heels 83–77 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Dec. 15, 2019, to give Banghart her first loss at UNC in her ninth game. Janelle Bailey and Malu Tshitenge are the only current Tar Heels who played in that game.
Bailey will finish her Carolina career in Texas. She announced last weekend that she will enter the WNBA draft this season.
“She wanted to kind of put that behind her that she wasn’t coming back,” Banghart said of Bailey. “I know our teammates are happy for her and I know she wants to just do as well as she can in the tournament for us and then that’ll be a whole different chapter.”
That departure will hurt the Tar Heels, but last week there was news of an additional arrival with Princeton point guard Carlie Littlefield announcing that she will be a graduate transfer at UNC. The two-time first-team All-Ivy performer played for Banghart two seasons ago.
This is only the second time in 28 appearances that the Tar Heels have been a double-digit seed. In 2010 as the No. 10 seed in the Sacramento Regional, UNC lost 82–76 in the first round against No. 7-seed Gonzaga.
During a Final Four run in 2007, the No. 1-seed Tar Heels won two games in Texas, beating No. 5 George Washington 70–56 in the regional semifinals and No. 2-seed Purdue 84–72 in the regional final.
Carolina is 47–26 in NCAA play, including winning the championship in 1994.
NCAA tournament bracket
ACC pool photos