Veteran leadership for young, talented UNC women already making a difference

By R.L. Bynum

With the No. 2-ranked freshman class bolstering the No. 11-ranked sophomore class, UNC’s women’s basketball team won’t lack for talent this season.

The team is so young, though, that only three players had walked to a Carolina class before this school year thanks to last year’s virtual classes and nine being underclassmen. With so much youth, there will be times when guidance from veteran players will be important.

It didn’t take long for that to be the case. It happened during the Tar Heels’ first official practice last Thursday.

The team was scrimmaging against the junior varsity men’s team. Third-year coach Courtney Banghart said the speed, length and high basketball IQ of those men have made practices very competitive.

One of UNC’s two point guard transfers, redshirt junior Eva Hodgson from William & Mary (at right in top photo), didn’t like the team’s play on defense. They had given up two consecutive baskets when defenders didn’t rotate properly on either possession.

“I give a lot of credit to Eva in that moment,” Banghart said. “It was just one of those things where she said, ‘Can we just have a minute, coach?’ ”

Hodgson, a first-team All-CAA player in her last season with the Tribe (2019–20) and the CAA rookie of the year in 2018–19, led a players-only huddle to get everybody on the same page defensively.

“And they grouped up and locked in and we got three of the next stops,” Banghart said. “So, it’s nice when you have some assertiveness on your roster and people that listen and make changes. This is a competitive group. We’re not just going to let things happen. We’re going to do hard [stuff] together.”

That was the first time since Banghart came to Chapel Hill that something like that has happened in practice, but she remembers veteran leadership like that with some of her best Princeton teams.

“I think what happens on successful teams is they’re more player-led than they are coach-led at times,” Banghart said. “In terms of inside the lines, you need some player leadership, and we’re getting that this year, more than I’ve had since I’ve been here.”

UNC, coming off a 13–11 season that produced an NCAA tournament berth, will have a short scrimmage at UNC’s Late Night at the Smith Center on Oct. 15 and open the season Nov. 9 at Carmichael Arena against reigning MEAC champion North Carolina A&T with high expectations.

Hodgson and graduate student Carlie Littlefield (at left in top photo), who came to Carolina after three seasons and four years at Princeton, are providing that leadership — along with redshirt senior Jaelynn Murray — even though the two transfers both have only been in the program a few months.

Banghart, Hodgson and Littlefield all read the book Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams by Sam Walker last summer, and then talked about what it would be like to join a new team.

“They don’t have four years to figure it out,” Banghart said. “So, I challenged them upon coming here. ‘Why’d you come here? What were your commitments to ensure that why becomes the how?’ And then, other than that, I just put the attention on what their task was, and they’ve really earned it.”

Hodgson led the CAA in scoring (20.7 per game), field-goal percentage (54%) and free-throw percentage (91.2%) in her last season.

The veteran leadership will be helpful if the young players hit some rough patches. Even though they are new to the program, the rest of the team has embraced that key contribution.

“They’ve been in it a long time,” Banghart said of Hodgson and Littlefield. “They’re very vocal with their teammates. They’re supportive. They’re accountable. They lead with effort. Doing that book challenge together and reading and talking through joining an organization … they get it. I give them all the credit. Inside the locker room, leaders emerge. And they’ve emerged and now they’ve earned it. So we’re in good place with it when the team is in their hands.”

Since both transfers — as well 5–7 freshman Kayla McPherson — are point guards, that provides the backcourt depth that the Tar Heels badly needed last season.

During her impressive Texas high school career that made her a McDonald’s All-American, Deja Kelly played mostly at an off-guard spot. But she not only had to play point guard during her freshman season at UNC, but a lot of minutes.

“Really, the biggest thing I think of when I think of Deja was her adversity response,” Banghart said.

Adjusting to a new position, college basketball and the pace of play made it a challenging first college season.

“She just kind of put one day after the next and watched a lot of film, had a lot of heart-to-heart conversations about what we needed from her and how her game was or wasn’t translating in the moment to the college pace, and she just never gave up,” Banghart said. “She never disengaged. So, she was a player that just got better and better as the year went on.”

Kelly, who averaged 11 points last season but 17.2 in the last six games, has one college season behind her and won’t have the burden of needing to play a lot at the point this season. Instead, she’ll shift to being more of a combo guard. That change and fewer minutes might help her scoring production.

Last season, she played more than 30 minutes in 13 games and at least 37 minutes in five of the last six games.

“I think that Deja is really enjoying the new position of more of a combo spot, not having the ball in her hands all the time, so you can run stuff for her in off-ball action and all that,” Banghart said. “It’s fun for me to have a team of scorers because I think I’ve got a pretty good mind for offense and so I’ve been able to kind of manipulate it accordingly.”

Banghart said Littlefield has been playing the point, and playing consistently well, during practice. Banghart was Littlefield’s Princeton coach during her first two seasons there. She is a two-time first-team All-Ivy League selection and Princeton’s all-time leader in points (1,393), assists (380) and steals even though she only played three seasons there.

“She’s a real facilitator and really understands how to get others the ball,” Banghart said. “So, I do think Deja has an opportunity to get better looks and also play less but more efficiently. I think we’ll be able to have more efficient minutes out of our guard rotation.”

Another player who won’t be pushed to play as many minutes as she was last season as a freshman will be Alyssa Ustby, who averaged a team-leading 30 minutes per game. She played more than 30 minutes 12 times, with a high of 41 minutes in the home overtime win Dec. 20 over Wake Forest.

“I couldn’t take Alyssa out last year because she played the hardest; we just needed her motor and energy,” Banghart said. “And now I’ve got a bunch of guys that play hard. She might not be having to play to complete exhaustion until every single media timeout. The mentality is going to be to earn your sub. Play hard enough that you’re looking forward to being subbed out and worry about the scoreboard at the end of the game. So far, they did a really good job at that.”

As long as everybody stays healthy, the playing-time distribution should be easier for every player in the rotation. One negative injury-wise is that guard Ariel Young is injured and will be sidelined, Banghart said, “for the foreseeable future.”

The combination of young talent and seasoned leadership should make it fun for fans who finally get to see women’s basketball in person at Carmichael for the first time since March 1, 2020.

UNC roster

Fr.Kayla McPhersonPG5–7
RS Jr.Eva HodgsonPG5–9
GradCarlie LittlefieldPG5–9
So.Deja KellyG5–8
So.Kennedy Todd-WilliamsG5–11
Fr.Morasha WigginsW6–0
So.Alyssa UstbyW6–1
RS Jr.Ariel YoungW6–1
RS Sr.Jaelynn MurrayF6–2
So.Anya PooleF6–2
Fr.Destiny AdamsF6–3
Fr.Teonni KeyF6–3
Jr.Malu TshitengeF6–3
So.Alexandra ZelayaF6–4

UNC schedule

DateDay, time, TVLocationOpponent
Nov. 9Tuesday, TBAHomeN.C. A&T
Nov. 14Sunday, 3:30RoadCharlotte
Nov. 17Wednesday, 6 p.m.HomeAppalachian State
Nov. 21X-Sunday, 4:30RoadTCU
Nov. 26Y-Friday, TBABimini, BahamasVCU or Washington
Nov. 27Y-Saturday, TBABimini, BahamasVCU or Washington
Dec. 1X-Wednesday,
9 p.m., BTN
Dec. 5Sunday, 2 p.m.HomeJames Madison
Dec. 12Sunday, 2 p.m.HomeUNC Asheville
Dec. 15Wednesday, 6 p.m.HomeJacksonville
Dec. 19Sunday, 2 p.m.RoadBoston College
Dec. 21Tuesday, 1 p.m.HomeAlabama State
Dec. 30Thursday, 6 p.m.HomeSyracuase
Jan. 2Sunday, 6 p.m.HomeClemson
Jan. 6Thursday, 8 p.m., ACCNRoadN.C. State
Jan. 9Sunday, 6 p.m.HomeVirginia Tech
Jan. 16Sunday, 1 p.m.RoadNotre Dame
Jan. 20Thursday, 6 p.m.HomeVirginia
Jan. 23Sunday, noonRoadGeorgia Tech
Jan. 27Thursday, 7 p.m.RoadDuke
Jan. 30Sunday, TBAHomeN.C. State
Feb. 3Thursday, 8 p.m., ACCNRoadWake Forest
Feb. 6Sunday, noonHomeMiami
Feb. 10Thursday, 6 p.m.HomePittsburgh
Feb. 13Sunday, 1 p.m.RoadVirginia Tech
Feb. 17Thursday, 6 p.m.HomeLouisville
Feb. 20Sunday, noonRoadFlorida State
Feb. 24Thursday, 7 p.m.RoadVirginia
Feb. 27Sunday, TBAHomeDuke
ACCN — ACC Network; BTN — Big Ten Network;
X — ACC/Big Ten Challenge; Y —Goombay Splash; Z — Maggie Dixon Classic

Photo courtesy UNC Athletics Communications


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