By R.L. Bynum
After the No. 19 North Carolina women easily navigated the nonconference schedule and the first three games of the ACC season with numerous one-sided victories, the challenges are about to ramp up dramatically.
The Tar Heels (13–0, 3–0 ACC) will face their first ranked opponents of the season as conference games fill the rest of the schedule in one of the two best leagues in the country. The ACC and the SEC are the only conferences with six ranked teams. They, along with the Pac 12, have two top-10 teams.
Carolina plays ranked teams in five of the next seven games, three on the road, starting with No. 5 N.C. State (12–2, 3–0) at 8 p.m. Thursday (ACC Network) in a sold-out Reynolds Coliseum.
It’s one of the most anticipated matchups of the season a year after the teams split two games, and the atmosphere should be electric.
“It didn’t take me long to be at Carolina to know how important this game is and how much energy,” said Coach Courtney Banghart, whose team is off to the program’s best start since the 2010–11 season and is one of three remaining unbeaten teams in the country. “What I’m excited about is it’s two really good college basketball teams.”
By the end of the month, UNC will have faced the Wolfpack a second time, in addition to meeting No. 16 Georgia Tech, No. 17 Duke and No. 20 Notre Dame.
Carolina joined that list of ranked league teams in mid-December for the first time in six seasons, making the Triangle arguably the strongest area in the country for women’s college basketball.
“If this doesn’t excite the state of North Carolina, that’s really sad,” said Banghart, in her third season. “We’ve talked about it being a basketball state and a basketball conference. I don’t know if I would have thought three years ago that we’d be here this quickly. But I just give a lot of credit to the players that trusted the mission and put the work in to make sure that we’re getting ready to be where we’re at. I challenge any other part in any other part of the country to say they’ve got three top 20 teams within 40 miles of one another.”
It’s the first matchup between the old rivals when both are ranked since Feb. 16, 2014, when No. 17 Carolina beat No. 10 N.C. State 89–82.
The talented two-time reigning ACC champion Wolfpack, which is 2–2 against ranked teams, played a few big non-conference games.
“That’s what the players want,” N.C. State coach Wes Moore said. “They want to play in front of crowds and they want to play in the big games and that’s why our non-conference schedule, very, very competitive. We’ve played a lot of big games. So, hopefully, we’re prepared for that.”
N.C. State beat No. 10 Maryland 78–60 in the Bahamas on Nov. 25 and won at No. 6 Indiana 66–68 on Dec. 2, but lost at home to No. 1 South Carolina 66–57 on Nov. 9 and No. 15 Georgia 82–80 in overtime on Dec. 16.
“Obviously, Carolina’s undefeated, playing extremely well,” N.C. State coach Wes Moore said. “Their transition game is really, really good. They run the floor hard, also do a good job of getting to the rim and getting to the offensive boards. So, we’re gonna have to try to slow all that down.”
While the Tar Heels have veteran players in transfer graduate guards Carlie Littlefield and Eva Hodgson and reserve junior center Malu Tshitenge, sophomores Deja Kelly, Alyssa Ustby, Kennedy Todd-Williams and Anya Poole are the core of their rotation.
Conversely, N.C. State’s 6–5 senior center Elissa Cunane leads an experienced group. The Pack’s six other top players include three graduate students (forward Kayla Jones and guards Raina Perez and Kai Crutchfield), two juniors (wing Jakia Brown-Turner and forward Jada Boyd) and one sophomore (guard Diamond Johnson).
Carolina won 64–51 on Super Bowl Sunday at State three years ago to give the No. 7 Wolfpack their first loss. While reserve forward Jaelynn Murray is the only current Tar Heel who played in that game, Cunane, Jones and Crutchfield all played that day.
“They’ve got multiple pros that are ready to take that step at some point very soon in their careers,” Banghart. “And our guys are still getting better and better and we’ll grow to that. They’ve got a lot of good players that we have a lot of respect for.”
Jones didn’t play in State’s game at Clemson as she still is recovering from offseason knee surgery to repair a patella tendon injury, but Moore expects her to play Thursday.
“I’ve got to do a good job of pacing her and trying to squeeze as much out as we can,” Moore said. “But it’s gonna be a problem all year. A lot of the surgeries take really a full year to recover. So she’s, she’s not there yet, but she’s such a smart player. Such a high basketball IQ for us that it’s hard to get her off the floor sometimes.”
Considering that there were no fans at games last season, many of UNC’s young players have never played in front of a crowd as big as they’ll see Thursday night. But it’s nothing new for most of the Wolfpack.
Littlefield played in NCAA tournament games in Reynolds twice while she and Banghart were at Princeton.
Cunane, averaging 13.1 points and 7.3 rebounds, was a matchup problem last year when Carolina had veteran 6–4 center Janelle Bailey. It won’t get any easier for the 6–2 Poole, who played at Southeast Raleigh High School.
She’s played well, averaging 9.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, but is in her first season as a starter after averaging 14 minutes per game last season. UNC likely will need good help inside from Ustby and off the bench from Tshitenge, 6–4 sophomore center Alexandra Zelaya and 6–3 freshman forward Destiny Adams.
In Carolina’s 82–63 loss in Raleigh last season, Cunane got Bailey in early foul trouble.
“What a great challenge for Anya, a great challenge from Malu, who’s been playing for a while, and a great challenge for Z,” Banghart said. “We’ve got a bunch of bigs and Destiny and Lys and we’ve got lots of guys that will get an opportunity to play against a premier post. She’s a premier post for a reason. She’s had a ton of success against a variety of styles.”
Tshitenge, who missed the last two games because of COVID-19 protocols, is expected to be available for Thursday’s game.
“They have a massive size advantage of most positions,” Banghart said. “It’s a game that’s easier played with size. And so they’ve got size and they’ve got experienced size. You go right down their roster, they’ve got size. Their guards are big. Even if they’re not tall, they’re physical.”
Carolina counters that size and physical play with quickness and better defense than State saw last season. The Tar Heels’ offense has looked much crisper this season as well with better ball movement to create better shots.
“How we deal with their size is going to be a variety of ways,” Banghart said. “It can’t be any one way. They’re just too good of a team to say this is what we do, we’re going to do it, no matter what. We’ve got to be able to adjust throughout the game and our team has been very good at that.”
UNC won the first matchup last season in Carmichael 76–69 behind 20 points from Ustby, despite Kelly being sick that day and out of the starting lineup (yet still scoring 12 points).
“They were two very different games last year in terms of how they defended on ball screens, in terms of how they attacked offensively, literally at our place versus at their place,” Banghart said in contrasting the two UNC-State games last season. “Two entirely different game plans.”
It was a case of the Tar Heels shooting well in Chapel Hill (40.6% from the floor and 42.3% from 3-point range) and the Pack shooting 39.4% from the floor but 21.1% from 3-point range. That flipped in State’s win in Raleigh with the Pack shooting 44.9% from the floor and 35% from 3-point range while the Heels shot 35.3% from the floor and 20.8% from 3-point range.
“We didn’t shoot the ball well over there at all,” Moore said. “We had a lot of people struggling; give them credit. They defended, and we just didn’t handle it well. And then we came over here and we shot the ball better.”
Perimeter shooting figures to be a key element Thursday. The Wolfpack leads the ACC and is second in the country in 3-point shooting percentage at 41.9%, led by Perez (50%), Crutchfield (50%), Johnson (46.6%) and Jones (44.1%), who all have at least 14 3-pointers, and Boyd, who is 3 of 7.
UNC has three solid perimeter threats with at least 14 3s in Kelly (41.8% from 3-point range), Hodgson (41.5%) and Littlefield, who was shooting 44.4% before making only 2 of her last 21 attempts. State knows Ustby can be dangerous there as well because she had four 3-pointers in UNC’s win at Chapel Hill.
“We’re not a low-post dominant team, which is fine because Cunane would take care of that probably pretty well anyway,” Banghart said. “And so we’ll have to make shots and share the ball and move the ball. And also we’ll have to make things difficult for them. You know, you never want to go into any game and say we’re going to outscore you.”
One of the key reasons the Tar Heels have played so well is tough defense, led by Todd-Williams with her length, and the active play on the defensive end by Littlefield, Ustby and Kelly.
“This is the first team in three years that actually is a true two-way team, which is always a little bit more exciting to go into a game knowing that you have both sides of the ball,” Banghart said. “We want to win a national championship here and defense travels. And so you’ve got to be able to travel and win. And so that’s just going to be a foundation as we continue to climb there.”
It should be an entertaining night in West Raleigh, with many more to come for the Tar Heels.
UNC season statistics
N.C. State season statistics
day, time, TV
|9||92–47 win, 1–0||Home||N.C. A&T|
|14||89–33 win, 2–0||Road||Charlotte|
|17||89–44 win, 3–0||Home||Appalachian State|
|21||79–46 win, 4–0||Road||TCU|
|26||72–59 win, 5–0||Bimini, Bahamas||X — VCU|
|27||58–37 win, 6–0||Bimini, Bahamas||X — Washington|
|December (6–0, 2–0 ACC)|
|1||82–76 win, 7–0||Road||Y — Minnesota|
|5||93–47 win, 8–0||Home||James Madison|
|12||107–46 win, 9–0||Home||UNC Asheville|
|19||76–63 win, 10–0, 1–0 ACC||Road||Boston College|
|21||83–47 win, 11–0||Home||Alabama State|
|30||79–43 win, 12–0, 2–0 ACC||Home||Syracuse|
|January (1–0, 1–0 ACC)|
|2||81–62 win, 13–0, 3–0 ACC||Home||Clemson|
|6||Thursday, 8, ACCN||Road||No. 5 N.C. State|
|9||Sunday, 6, ACCN||Home||Virginia Tech|
|16||Sunday, 1, RSN||Road||No. 20 Notre Dame|
|20||Thursday, 6, ACCNX||Home||Virginia|
|23||Sunday, noon, ACCN||Road||No. 16 Georgia Tech|
|27||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||No. 17 Duke|
|30||Sunday, TBA, ESPN or ACCN||Home||No. 5 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||No. 3 Louisville|
|20||Sunday, noon, RSN||Road||Florida State|
|24||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||Virginia|
|27||Sunday, TBA, ESPN2 or ACCN||Home||No. 17 Duke|
RSN — regional sports networks; X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications