By R.L. Bynum
At ACC Tipoff in October, North Carolina coach Courtney Banghart told a group of ACC Network announcers before going on the air that people were underestimating the potential of her third Tar Heels team.
“I said to the crew that was at the desk, ‘We’re better than y’all think,’ ” Banghart said, figuring that they didn’t know the impact of graduate transfer guards Carlie Littlefield and Eva Hodgson. ” ‘Y’all don’t know Eva and Carlie. Y’all don’t know how much better my sophomores have gotten.’ I did think we were better than the credit we were getting.”
The prognosticators saw the loss of the top three scorers from the previous season (Janelle Bailey, Stephanie Watts and Petra Holešínská) and weren’t convinced. They picked Carolina to finish seventh in the league and no Tar Heels made the preseason All-ACC team.
Banghart’s team proved them wrong by going 23–5, ascending to No. 16 in the AP Top 25 (so far) — the highest since a No. 15 ranking in 2015 — and finishing tied for third in the ACC at 13–5. It has all come together with Littlefield and Hodgson injecting veteran leadership while Carolina’s sophomores have delivered breakout seasons.
All of the success came despite the agonizing loss for the season in early November of highly touted freshman wing Teonni Key (No. 9 nationally in her recruiting class) and junior reserve Ariel Young to knee injuries. In addition, freshman point guard Kayla McPherson (No. 17 in the class) redshirted because of her slow recovery from a torn right ACL.
Those setbacks didn’t keep the Tar Heels from flipping the league and national view of the program. Without any marquee nonconference opponents, that shift didn’t happen until they went 7–1 in February, including a signature upset of then-No. 3 Louisville.
“They didn’t know the commitment in the offseason that our roster had made or the size of our most experienced player, Jaelynn Murray’s, heart,” Banghart said. “I think we’ve proven ourselves week after week and excited to come to Greensboro and be part of a really exciting event.”
No. 4-seed Tar Heels open play at 11 a.m. Friday at the ACC Tournament in Greensboro with a quarterfinal game (regional sports networks). They’ll play the winner of Thursday’s 11 a.m. second-round game between No. 5-seed Virginia Tech (21–8, 13–5) and No. 13-seed Clemson (10–20, 3–15). The Tigers ousted No. 12-seed Syracuse on Wednesday 88–69.
Deja Kelly followed up an ACC All-Freshman performance by making both All-ACC first teams, leading Carolina in scoring (15.8 points per game) and the ACC in free-throw percentage (85.6%) while making huge strides on the defensive end.
Alyssa Ustby, with consistent overall play, a team-leading 8.6 rebounds per game and 12 double-doubles, earned All-ACC second-team honors on the Blue Ribbon panel’s team.
Kennedy Todd-Williams, who inexplicably was left off the ACC All-Defensive team, has been the best of a group of solid Tar Heels defenders all season. Since mid-January, she’s become a huge offensive threat with 11 double-figure scoring games in the last 13 games and some clutch shots in the upset of Louisville.
A big question was how UNC would replace Bailey inside. Anya Poole has started every game at center, improved all season and — despite being banged up of late — been a force under the boards. She’s played the best basketball of her career in recent games.
When Carolina is shooting well from the perimeter, they can beat anybody in the country. Even in games where the shots aren’t falling, the Tar Heels usually figure out a way.
Although Banghart knew her team would be good, she has been most impressed by her players’ ability to be consistent from game to game.
“To win so consistently in this league is really, really hard,” said Banghart, adding that the team’s goals kept them focused. “You’re playing with a sense of urgency all the time now with the ranking and whatnot and honestly they’ve been remarkably consistent.”
The one major blip was UNC’s first loss, a 72–45 setback on Jan. 6 at N.C. State, in which the Tar Heels fell behind early and never made a game of it.
“The growth they’ve made since that first N.C. State game all the way to now? They’ve really been convincing in how they’ve competed night after night,” Banghart said. “And that’s been something that’s really noteworthy for this particular group.”
For the last few years of Roy Williams’ coaching career, he bemoaned having to coach effort. And, up until the aftermath of the Pittsburgh loss, Coach Hubert Davis preached about “energy, effort and toughness” and said that he’s a basketball coach and not an “effort coach.”
Carolina’s women’s team never had such issues this season, and — except for the first State game — has always been resilient and fought its way through any adversity.
“They practice as hard as they play,” Banghart said. “Their actions match their words. I always say I think teams take on the personality of its leaders. And I think our staff leads in a way that is tireless. But I also think our players — if you look at the Jaelynn, Carlie, Eva trio — they lead by example. And they lead from the front and from the back. And so they’re relentlessness has never been in question.”
It’s as if her team is hard-wired to bring intense, consistent efforts to every game.
“It’s a critical part of your team’s success,” Banghart. “My guys played really hard. It’s what I emphasize. And it’s what I lead. And it’s what I celebrate. It’s a staple of who we want to be and we’re not just going to talk about it, we’re gonna do it.”
If the favorites on their side of the bracket advance, the Tar Heels would get a third matchup with No. 21-ranked Virginia Tech, which gave them their only February loss, 66–61 at Blacksburg, Va., on Feb. 13. That came after UNC blew out the Hokies in Chapel Hill 71–46 on Jan. 9.
A Friday win likely will earn a noon Saturday semifinal clash with the No. 3-ranked and top-seed Wolfpack (26–3, 17–1), which had a tougher time in Chapel Hill on Jan. 30 before winning 66–58.
“There’s no way to get to games in March that aren’t meaningful and they’re not with good teams,” Banghart said. “So, whoever we play, it’s gonna be a great team. And then whoever we play moving forward, it’s gonna be a great team. So don’t care quite as much who it is, I’m just excited for the opportunity to compete again with my group.”
Should Clemson upset the Hokies to earn a Friday matchup with UNC, it will be a challenge for the Tigers. The Tar Heels beat Clemson 81–62 in Chapel Hill on Jan. 2.
Even with all that Carolina has accomplished this season, Banghart still is trying to convince national observers that her team is better than they think. This time, it’s because bracket projections have the Tar Heels as a No. 5 seed and she sees UNC as at least a No. 4 seed, which would come with first- and second-round games in Carmichael Arena.
“Hosting in the first round of the NCAA Tournaments has been their goal all along,” said Banghart, pointing out that all five of UNC’s losses have come against Top 25 teams. “I don’t know how you leave us out of that, to be honest. And so we’re just going to keep focusing on one game at a time and trusting that the people making the decisions are doing that thoughtfully.”
Three wins this weekend in Greensboro would make it impossible for the NCAA tournament selection committee keep UNC from being a sub-regional host. You could argue that they’ve done enough already.
UNC was last a sub-regional host in 2015.
There’s no doubt that the Tar Heels are good, though, which Banghart knew long ago.
ACC Tournament bracket
time, day, 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. 3 N.C. State|
|9||71–46 win, 14–1, 4–1||Home||No. 21 Virginia Tech|
|16||70–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2||Road||No. 20 Notre Dame|
|20||61–52 win, 15–2, 5–2||Home||Virginia|
|23||55–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3||Road||No. 25 Georgia Tech|
|27||78–62 win, 16–3, 6–3||Road||Duke|
|30||66–58 loss, 16–4, 6–4||Home||No. 3 N.C. State|
|February (7–1, 7–1 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||No. 21 Virginia Tech|
|17||66–65 win, 20–5, 10–5||Home||No. 4 Louisville|
|20||64–49 win, 21–5, 11–5||Road||Florida State|
|24||68–57 win, 22–5, 12–5||Road||Virginia|
|27||74–46 win, 23–5, 14–5||Home||Duke|
|— ACC Tournament —|
|4||11 a.m. Friday, RSN||Greensboro||Virginia Tech, Syracuse or Clemson|
|5||noon Saturday, ACCN||Greensboro||Semifinals (with win Friday)|
|6||noon Sunday, ESPN||Greensboro||Final (with wins Friday, Saturday)|
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications