By R.L. Bynum
The ascent of Carolina’s women’s basketball program under Coach Courtney Banghart has been on a clear path to becoming a national-title contender next season.
With their talent, poise and determined mindset, though, the Tar Heels showed Thursday night that they might just be ready to do some damage this season. No. 3 Louisville (22–3, 12–2 ACC) is no doubt convinced after losing 66–65 at Carmichael Arena to the No. 23 Tar Heels (20–5, 10–5).
UNC beat top-10 N.C. State teams in Banghart’s first two seasons, but could she have imagined pulling off a signature win like Thursday’s so soon in her tenure?
“That’s a good question,” Banghart said. “I hadn’t really thought about that. I’m so laser-focused on this group. This group, even when their hearts on the floor and when they get in the feelings a little bit, it’s all because they care.
“This group is such a group that I just have just come to love,” she said. “I’m so focused on them and I was just so happy for them. I mean, they just put the time in. They stuck together, they trust me, they trust each other.”
Carolina hadn’t beaten Louisville since an NCAA Sweet 16 victory nearly 14 years ago. The Cardinals came to Chapel Hill with an eight-game win streak after pummeling No. 18 Notre Dame 73–47 in their previous game.
Forward Teonni Key (No. 9 in the 2021 class) and point guard Kayla McPherson (No. 17) are highly touted members of the nation’s No. 2-ranked freshman class who won’t play a minute this season because of injuries.
With that duo joining the core of a 20-win Carolina team that returns next season, the future is bright.
Banghart has done a superb job with this season’s group. UNC has been resilient through tough moments all season, has shown consistent drive and effort and has never lost back-to-back games.
The Tar Heels’ four sophomore starters — Deja Kelly, Kennedy Todd-Williams, Alyssa Ustby and Anya Poole — have played beyond their years in recent weeks, showing impressive improvement from their freshman seasons.
The added veteran leadership from graduate transfers Carlie Littlefield and Eva Hodgson have created tremendous chemistry over a short period of time.
Kelly was upset at herself for missing a late free throw but she made a key jumper with 23 seconds left.
“I live for moments like these,” said Kelly, who made a huge jumper with 23 seconds left. “I love these environments. I love games like these. I knew that it was time to take over and whether that was hitting the shot, whether that was making an extra pass, whether that was knocking down a free throw, I was gonna do whatever I needed to do to win this game. And that jumper went in and you know that gave us some momentum we needed to win that game.”
Except for the loss at N.C. State, Carolina has battled through any adversity that has come its way this season with aplomb. When a lot of teams would have wilted, the Tar Heels have shown the determination to keep fighting and not let opponents off easily.
Todd-Williams scored a career-high 19 points with two huge 3-pointers and a pair of clutch late free throws with 16 seconds remaining against Louisville. While making huge plays down the stretch, it was a combination of nervousness and confidence for Todd-Williams.
“A little bit of both,” she said. “We were just so excited. We were already up on a high and it was just a good moment for us. We were like, we’ve got to get a stop. Our blood pressure is up. Everything is just high. You’re just locked in and we just focused on what we needed to do.”
Kelly has been UNC’s leading scorer all season and Ustby has been a good all-around player who contributes in so many ways. But Todd-Williams has become an X-factor in recent weeks with her aggressive play offensively.
She gets in a lot of intense one-on-one after practice with UNC’s male practice players and that makes it tough on opponents when she takes that focus into games.
“I think last year I was held back from what I could have done,” Todd-Williams said. “But the time off, I was just grinding and built more confidence in myself to unleash … . I have trust in my teammates, my teammates trust me and my coaches trust me. So, just allowing me to play my game and just having fun.”
With ESPN’s Charlie Creme now projecting the Tar Heels to be a No. 6 seed, they have the potential to move up to a No. 4 seed with a strong finish to become a first- and second-round host in the NCAA tournament.
Creme’s projection has Carolina in the Spokane Regional, facing No. 11-seed Colorado in a first-round game in Austin, Texas.
If things break right, UNC has a shot at earning a double-bye in the ACC Tournament. That’s important since no team has even made the championship game of the event without that double-bye under the current format.
Whatever happens, this group of Tar Heels is going to make this a fun March for their fans. And the fun factor will no doubt only go up from there next season.
UNC 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||Home||Syracuse|
|January (4–4, 4–4 ACC)|
|2||81–62 win, 13–0, 3–0 ACC||Home||Clemson|
|6||72–45 loss, 13–1, 3–1||Road||No. 5 N.C. State|
|9||71–46 win, 14–1, 4–1||Home||Virginia Tech|
|16||70–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2||Road||No. 18 Notre Dame|
|20||61–52 win, 15–2, 5–2||Home||Virginia|
|23||55–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3||Road||No. 11 Georgia Tech|
|27||78–62 win, 16–3, 6–3||Road||Duke|
|30||66–58 loss, 16–4, 6–4||Home||No. 5 N.C. State|
|February (4–1, 4–1 ACC)|
|3||78–59 win, 17–4, 7–4||Road||Wake Forest|
|6||85–38 win, 18–4, 8–4||Home||Miami|
|10||64–54 win, 19–4, 9–4||Home||Pittsburgh|
|13||66–61 loss, 19–5, 9–5||Road||Virginia Tech|
|17||66–65 win, 20–4, 10–5||Home||No. 3 Louisville|
|20||Sunday, noon, RSN||Road||Florida State|
|24||Thursday, 7, ACCNX||Road||Virginia|
|27||Sunday, 4, ACCN||Home||Duke|
X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications