By R.L. Bynum
As North Carolina’s women head into their season opener Tuesday, the young Tar Heels probably won’t face a tougher test than they got during the preseason.
UNC played two closed scrimmages during the preseason, meeting East Carolina before visiting No. 1-ranked South Carolina ahead of Tuesday’s 4:30 p.m. season opener at home against North Carolina A&T (ACC Network Extra).
“It was purposeful and making sure that we could play against a team that has so much returning and would kind of be, in some ways, a standard at which we need to match up against,” third-year Coach Courtney Banghart said of facing the Gamecocks. “We talked about a championship culture of commitment and of grit that we’re going to see on the floor and our kids really matched it.”
South Carolina, which opens the season Tuesday at No. 5 N.C. State, gave the Tar Heels a good gauge of where it is and where the improvement needs to come.
UNC didn’t reveal scores or details from either scrimmage. But Banghart mentioned that sophomores Alyssa Ustby and Deja Kelly played well in both games and that she got good efforts from a lot of players.
“It’s a scrimmage, so you can read into that all you want,” said Banghart, who was selected last month as vice president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. “If we were playing for a Final Four, we’d like where we ended up on that, right? But it’s a closed scrimmage. We’re not supposed to share a ton of details. It was one of those days as a coach you leave and you say ‘job well done.’ ”
Freshman Kayla McPherson, who put on a 3-point shooting show at Late Night, has still not practiced fully this season as she recovers from a knee injury and there is no real timetable on when that will change. Her absence and the fact that the Tar Heels were depleted by other injuries made battling the talented Gamecocks even more challenging.
“I’ve been pleased with the depth,” said Banghart, who added that five players scored in double figures in both scrimmages and that her team was tougher on defense than last season. “Our grad transfers have a ton of experience and toughness.”
The scrimmages were helpful experience for the backcourt. Kelly is shifting from primary point guard last season to a more familiar combo guard role this season with the additions of transfer point guards Carlie Littlefield and Eva Hodgson.
Banghart said that Kelly will have to improve her efficiency numbers from a year ago but says that she’s gotten better. She wants Kelly to be able to score and facilitate during her sophomore season.
“She’s really working on doing both of those things throughout the offensive possessions that we have,” Banghart said. “She’ll have the ball in her hands sometimes to start the possession. She’ll have the ball in her hands sometimes to end the possession. Her being able to kind of oscillate between facilitator and scorer is what they’re going to need at the pro level. So, we’ll need her to continue to grow in that category.”
One freshman in UNC’s No. 2-ranked class who will give UNC lots of versatility is 6–4 Teonni Key from Cary, who was the No. 9-ranked player nationally in the class and can play multiple positions. She started at the 4 spot in both exhibition games, but could play the 5 if Carolina wants to go to a smaller overall lineup.
“She’s really long … really mobile,” Banghart said. “She’s creating a lot of havoc offensively and defensively. She’s kind of a guard in a post body in terms of her skill sets. She’s really committed. She doesn’t back down. She wants to be the No. 1 draft pick and there’s a lot of opportunity that she’ll have to showcase that and to develop here in this program.”
Banghart said that Key will be a huge piece of any team she is part of for the rest of her career — which, no doubt, will include the WNBA — because of her impact on both ends of the court.
“She’s also got the right combination of being really competitive, yet she’s really likable,” Banghart said. “So, she’s easy to root for. Loves the game; obviously, it’s in her blood. She’s a really fun kid to coach.”
Carolina has high expectations this season with the influx of talent after going 13–11 and earning an NCAA tournament berth last season.
But the Tar Heels will have to meet those on the court before they get the recognition nationally and in the league after being left out of the preseason AP poll and being picked to finish seventh in the loaded ACC.
“It’s probably fair,” Banghart said of the ACC prediction. “When you look at some of our most impactful players so far this year, with Eva and Carlie and an improved [Kennedy Todd-Williams] and Teonni, the ACC doesn’t know who they are yet. So, I don’t worry about it too much.”
N.C. A&T went 14–3 last season and won the MEAC title before losing to N.C. State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This is the Aggies’ first season as a member of the Big South Conference.
“It felt like last year, although there were some growth steps for our program, it never really felt like game day,” Banghart said. “So, I’m looking forward to having this group have an opportunity to feel a game day. I know my group’s hungry. They’re hungry to start games. They’re hungry to continue to develop into who they’re going to become. And you do that by playing.”
A&T returns three of its top four scorers, including 6–0 graduate student guard Chanin Scott (14.3 points per game last year), a former Georgia Tech player. Former Carolina player Kennedy Boyd, a senior, is back, and the Aggies brought in transfer guard Faith Blackstone from Syracuse.
|RS Jr.||Eva Hodgson||PG||5–9|
|RS Jr.||Ariel Young||W||6–1|
|RS Sr.||Jaelynn Murray||F||6–2|
|Date||Day, time, TV||Location||Opponent|
|9||Tuesday, 4:30, ACCNX||Home||N.C. A&T|
|14||Sunday, 3:30, ESPN+||Road||Charlotte|
|17||Wednesday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Appalachian State|
|21||X-Sunday, 4:30, ESPN+||Road||TCU|
|26||Y-Friday, TBA||Bimini, Bahamas||VCU or Washington|
|27||Y-Saturday, TBA||Bimini, Bahamas||VCU or Washington|
|1||X-Wednesday, 9, BTN||Road||Minnesota|
|5||Sunday, 2, ACCNX||Home||James Madison|
|12||Sunday, 2, ACCNX||Home||UNC Asheville|
|15||Wednesday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Jacksonville|
|19||Sunday, 2, ACCNX||Road||Boston College|
|21||Tuesday, 1, ACCNX||Home||Alabama State|
|30||Thursday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Syracuse|
|2||Sunday, 6, ACCN||Home||Clemson|
|6||Thursday, 8, ACCN||Road||N.C. State|
|9||Sunday, 6, ACCN||Home||Virginia Tech|
|16||Sunday, 1, RSN||Road||Notre Dame|
|20||Thursday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Virginia|
|23||Sunday, noon, ACCN||Road||Georgia Tech|
|27||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||Duke|
|30||Sunday, TBA, ESPN or ACCN||Home||N.C. State|
|3||Thursday, 8, RSN||Road||Wake Forest|
|6||Sunday, noon, ACCN||Home||Miami|
|10||Thursday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Pittsburgh|
|13||Sunday, 1, ACCNX||Road||Virginia Tech|
|17||Thursday, 6, RSN||Home||Louisville|
|20||Sunday, noon, RSN||Road||Florida State|
|24||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||Virginia|
|27||Sunday, TBA, ESPN2 or ACCN||Home||Duke|
ACCN — ACC Network; RSN — regional sports networks;
X — ACC/Big Ten Challenge; Y —Goombay Splash; Z — Maggie Dixon Classic