By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Carolina’s women’s team was back at Carmichael Arena and while it was a familiar easy season-opening victory, the game day atmosphere Tuesday afternoon was nothing like most players had experienced.
Only Malu Tshitenge, Jaelynn Murray and Ariel Young knew what it was like 618 days earlier when UNC last played in front of home fans, the pep band and cheerleaders.
That was so long ago that one of the players that season, Liz Roberts, is now on the program’s staff. Coaches, fans, cheerleaders and band members had masks, but it felt more like normal with the benches back on the opposite side from the bleachers.
Carolina tried to move past the disappointment of losing top freshman Teonni Key, out for the season with an ACL tear to her right knee, by easily knocking off North Carolina A&T 92–47 for its fourth consecutive season-opening victory. UNC never trailed and led by as many as 52 points.
“I think collectively it just felt really good to play in front of some people in the stands,” sophomore guard said Deja Kelly, who was one of five Tar Heels to score in double figures with 13.
Guard Carlie Littlefield and wing Alyssa Ustby scored 15 points, guard Eva Hodgson 13 and wing Kennedy Todd-Williams 12.
“The fans were great,” said Littlefield, a graduate student who previously played for UNC coach Courtney Banghart at Princeton. “We had a great student section and yeah, just a lot of fun with this team.”
UNC, which also lost Young with an ACL tear to her left knee, still had plenty of new talent to show off with the other two of the four members of the No. 2-ranked freshman class — guard Morasha Wiggins and wing Destiny Adams — while freshman guard Kayla McPherson still is working her way back from a knee injury.
Littlefield was the leader of a three-guard starting lineup with Kelly and Todd-Williams. Ustby (6–1) and center Anya Poole (6–2) were the only starters taller than 6 feet.
Tshitenge (6–4) was never in the game at the same time as Poole but the Tar Heels played a few minutes with two centers on the court. Tshitenge had her moments, showed a nice jump shot and finished with eight points.
“We’re going to have to all be a little bit better,” Banghart said of playing without Key. “You don’t replace Teonni with one person. You sort fill the gaps that she provides. And, you know, I really liked our collective toughness. We’re not going to worry about what we don’t have. We’re going to worry about what we do, and focus on what we do.”
After leading 45–21 at halftime the Tar Heels (1–0) scored the first 15 second-half points and just kept rolling, shooting 54% from the floor and 50% from 3-point range with seven 3-pointers. They played tough defense, forcing 36 Aggies turnovers, including 19 steals, that led to 42 points.
“We knew just from the scout that I think that if we got some points off of just our defense, I think that would help us a lot,” Kelly said. “So, we really locked in on the scout and defensively. We just were active. I think that just allowed us to get a lot of steals and cause a lot of turnovers and cause a lot of disruption to their offense.”
Banghart gave a lot of credit to the men students her team scrimmages with for making the Tar Heels so tough on defense.
“We have a very good scrimmage team that we practice against,” Banghart said. “Those guys are long and they’re good and we have every expectation that we’re going to defend them well. And so we’ve been really good with our ball engagement. We’ve been committed to gap help and just activity. It’s the presence that we want to have around the basketball and it paid off.”
As for the defense, Littlefield said that the Tar Heels did what they are supposed to do.
“Every day in practice, we dial into defense,” Littlefield said. “We dial in, getting in each other’s gaps. And one thing Coach always says is that we’re all five defending the ball. So, I think we did a great job of just trying to speed them up because we’re in gaps. We’re helping each other out. Got our hands on a lot of balls.”
Littlefield and fellow guard transfer Hodgson played their first games in more than 600 days. Littlefield counted the days: 613. Littlefield’s Princeton season was canceled and Hodgson opted out of last season at William & Mary.
Littlefield’s impact came quickly with a driving baseline layup in the first 26 seconds, as well as a pair of 3-pointers, as she scored eight of UNC’s first nine points. She showed the ability to drive and dish for easy UNC buckets.
Littlefield said that she was feeling it early.
“Yeah, I was. My shot was feeling good in shootaround; I just thought I’d let it fly,” Littlefield said.
It was the biggest scoring output for Carolina since last season’s 92–68 win Dec. 17 over Syracuse.
“I was happy that through the roster people made contributions,” Banghart said. “There wasn’t any sort of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ or ‘I’m tentative.’ It was people that have pride in helping us be good here and they did that.”
The main areas of concern from the opener for UNC was getting outrebounded 36–32 and shooting only 58.6% from the free-throw line (17 of 29). Only rebounding 29% of their misses against the Aggies could mean struggles ahead of that doesn’t improve.
The Tar Heels visit Charlotte at 4:30 p.m. Sunday (ESPN+).
UNC 92, N.C. A&T 47
|Date||Score, record/day, time, TV||Location||Opponent|
|9||92–47 win, 1-0||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
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications