By R.L. Bynum
In a normal year, Deja Kelly’s Texas homecoming would have included a lot of time with family and friends and visiting her old neighborhood not far away from San Antonio’s Alamodome.
Instead, as Kelly and her North Carolina teammates prepare for Monday’s first-round game in the NCAA tournament’s Hemisfair Region as a No. 10 seed against No. 7-seed Alabama (12:06 p.m., ESPN), she’s getting a lot of time in her hotel room and at practices while in the bubble.
“Just to be able to play in the tournament at home, at the Alamodome is really exciting and really bittersweet,” said Kelly, who grew up in a house about 15 minutes away from the Alamodome. “I’ve been really excited for the last two or three weeks. Anybody could tell you that.”
No. 10-seed North Carolina (13–10) vs. No. 7-seed Alabama (16–9)
NCAA tournament Hemisphere Region
12:06 p.m. Monday, ESPN
There are few reminders of home since she got back to San Antonio, though.
“It’s very frustrating, especially for some of my family that has to drive down, just not being able to say hi to them. I can only wave from afar,” said Kelly, who grew up in San Antonio before spending her last two high school years in Dallas. “I just know this is really special for me personally and just for everybody. So, you kind of want to share that moment with your close family. But, obviously, with the situation, we’re just going to keep moving forward and on.”
She expects to have a personal cheering section of about 30 family and friends in the Alamodome, many of whom were in the same stadium when she led Duncanville High School to the Class 6-A state title a little more than a year ago as the championship game MVP.
There have been a lot of new experiences for the young Tar Heels team (13–10) during a pandemic season, and this will be another one against a seasoned Alabama team (16–9).
Kelly is the only Tar Heel who has played in the Alamodome, which could present depth-perception challenges for shooters. That didn’t seem to bother the Tar Heels at the Carrier Dome, though, where they shot 43.8% and made seven 3-pointers in a loss to Syracuse.
“I think you kind of just have to play like it’s any other gym,” said Kelly, who is averaging 10.4 points per game for the season but 19.2 in the last five games. “You can’t really focus on the depth perception or anything like that. You just got to play. I think you just focus on just us and just actually playing basketball and not really worried about that.”
A bigger challenge might be that senior center Janelle Bailey is the only UNC regular who has played in an NCAA tournament game. It’s also new to Alabama, though, which hasn’t played in the event since losing to UNC in Chapel Hill 60–56 in the 1999 NCAA tournament.
Bailey is saving her advice to the teammates about playing in the NCAA tournament until before the game because she wants them to soak in the experience. But she remembers how the Tar Heels squandering a 12-point second-quarter lead in a 92–72 first-round loss to California in Waco, Texas, in 2019.
“Come game time, right before, I’m just gonna share what my experience was like. And tell them that, literally, it’s 40 minutes. It’s not 28 minutes, not 30 minutes, it’s not 18 or eight minutes,” Bailey said. “We had a huge lead there and blew it.
“It means more to me because I want them to do well, especially for the freshmen,” Bailey said. “I want them to win so badly. I don’t want them to have the experience I had, going out in the first round. I’m just going to tell them what has to be said, and just give them advice and make sure that you go out there and play 40 minutes.”
UNC coach Courtney Banghart isn’t worried about playing in a domed stadium or the fact that nearly every one of her players will make their NCAA tournament debuts Monday, considering her players have deftly dealt with plenty of new experiences during a strange pandemic season.
“I think it’s not so much tournament experience, it’s living different experiences and Alabama absolutely has lived more experiences as a team than we have. That concerns me a whole lot more than NCAA tournament experience in every way because, inside the lines, it’s basketball,” Banghart said.
Her concern is an experienced Tide team.
Three seniors, 6-3 forward Jasmine Walker (19.2 points per game), 5-7 guard Jordan Lewis (16.8) and 6-3 forward Ariyah Copeland (15.0) lead the Tide and Alabama’s two other starters, 5-9 guard Megan Abrams (8.2) and 5-6 guard Hannah Barber (four assists per game), are juniors.
“They’ve got a bona fide pro in Walker on their team,” Banghart said of Walker, who played her freshman season at Florida State. “Obviously, March is when pros shine, so we’re going to have to do a good job on her. I actually like the fact that they mix up their defense a bit because that’ll kind of keep us moving. They present a lot of challenges as do we for them and that’s what March is all about.”
Abrams scored 21 points last season when Alabama beat UNC 83–77 on Dec. 15, 2019, at Tuscaloosa, Ala., in Banghart’s first loss after winning her first nine games at Carolina. The teams would have played this season in Chapel Hill had the pandemic not shuffled the schedule.
“If you add up the minutes that they have played in an Alabama uniform — their starting five — it’s a landslide in terms of how many minutes our guys have played together. So, that’s an obvious challenge, especially in the postseason,” Banghart
After the men’s team’s first-round exit Friday against an experienced Wisconsin team, Tar Heels fans won’t be happy to hear that Alabama is a good perimeter-shooting team and likes to pack in its defense, making post-entry passes harder.
Alabama is shooting 35.7% from 3-point range, led by Walker (72 3-pointers, 40.0%), Lewis (115, 36.5) and Barber (33, 30.0%).
It won’t be the first time UNC has faced a prolific perimeter team that clogs up the middle. The Tar Heels have had mixed results in those games.
“We’ve had games where we don’t move the ball, we don’t move ourselves,” Bailey said. “And, so, I think that we’ve honed in on that the past few days — that ball movement and player movement are important or else anything we’re trying to do will not work.
“It’s important that all five people on the floor see themselves as a threat,” said Bailey, who leads UNC in scoring (14.1 per game) and rebounding (8.2). “We believe they can score the ball at any time and find a way to make the game ours and that we dictate what we want to do. We don’t let them dictate what we do on our offensive. We’ve seen both sides of us doing that and not doing that so, obviously, we want to be on the good side.”
It will be important to get good perimeter shooting games from graduate transfers Petra Holešínská (12.5 points per game) and Stephanie Watts (10.8) to help open up space inside. Holešínská leads the team with 54 3-pointers and Watts has 29. But Holešínská is 9 of 35 from 3-point range in the past six games and Watts is 6 of 23 in the past five games.
This tournament run will be Bailey’s last with the Tar Heels program after she announced earlier this month that she won’t take the option to return for another season and will enter the WNBA draft.
Bailey said that it’s been a long four years and she knew it was time.
“I feel like I’m just ready to take my game to the next level and play at the next level,” Bailey said. “It was important for me to get that out of the way before I even came here because I only wanted to focus on this and winning one game at a time. So, it’s just something that I had talked to my family about. Obviously, I shared it with coach, and I feel like that was just something like a weight off my shoulders.”
Jackie Manuel, UNC’s director of player personnel and a member of the 2005 NCAA champion men’ s team, proved after Saturday’s practice at the Alamodome that he can still elevate at age 37.
“We already had high energy in practice there and then we ended it with a very special dunk from Jackie Manuel,” Kelly said. “He made a promise that when we made the tournament that he would dunk, because no one believed he could still dunk. He’s a little old now.”
They all just hope that there are plenty more practices and that Kelly’s Texas homecoming becomes an extended stay.
ACC pool photo