By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — All season, Coach Courtney Banghart has talked about her Carolina women’s basketball team’s connectedness, and the players’ enthusiasm for what’s ahead was obvious as they gathered at Top of the Hill restaurant to see where their March journey starts.
Carolina’s breakout season will continue as the No. 5 seed in the Greensboro Region of the NCAA tournament, facing No. 12-seed Stephen F. Austin (28–4) Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (ESPN News) in the first round in Tucson, Ariz. With a victory, the Tar Heels would play either No. 4-seed and No. 20-ranked Arizona (20–7) or No. 13-seed UNLV (26–6) in the second round on Monday.
Should the Tar Heels advance to the second weekend, they would play in Greensboro. If both advance, they would play No. 1-ranked South Carolina (29–2) in the Sweet 16 on Friday, March 25. The Greensboro Regional final is Sunday, March 27.
“If you look in the bracket and you know that you’re not gonna host, that’s disappointing,” said Banghart, whose team would have been a first- and second-round host had it earned a No. 4 seed. “But, to have the opportunity to come back home, that’s the second-best thing you can get.”
The Tar Heels (23–6), up one spot to No. 17 in the AP Top 25 poll released Monday, earned their highest seed since a No. 4 in 2015, with consecutive NCAA tournament berths for the first time since earning bids three consecutive seasons from 2013 to 2015. It’s the 29th NCAA berth in program history.
“What a year,” Banghart said. “What a year for this group.”
In UNC’s first NCAA tournament appearance under Banghart last season, the Tar Heels lost to Alabama in San Antonio, Texas, 80–71. That loss and Carolina’s 87–80 overtime loss to Virginia Tech in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament will provide plenty of motivation.
“We were pretty secure on watching that intently,” Banghart said of the loss to the Hokies. “I told them, it’s the first time we’ve been beaten all year by ourselves. We weren’t tight enough offensively. We were definitely too loose defensively. I told them the next time we come into the locker room with our hearts broken, it better be because somebody beat us.”
Although UNC didn’t beat the Hokies in the ACC Tournament, guard Eva Hodgson made a little postseason magic. She came off of a Kennedy Todd-Williams screen to get open and swished a 3-point attempt at the regulation buzzer to force overtime.
“Going into that game, we had practiced that play a few times. And that wasn’t necessarily successful in the past,” Hodgson said. “But when Coach drew it and she said I was gonna take the shot, I knew she believed in me. I knew my teammates believed in me and I knew I just had to let it fly. Emotions just kind of overtook me and, as you could tell, it took my teammates too, and they tackled me.”
That magic didn’t carry over into overtime but that sort of clutch play will serve the Tar Heels well in the NCAA tournament.
“I’ve never been to it,” Hodgson said. “So, I’m just excited to be a part of it and just specifically to be a part of it with this team.
“It’s crazy, honestly,” she said. “Even the fact that we’re a five seed in a tournament that I’ve been watching since I was a kid, it’s kind of surreal to me. And the fact that we get to do it with a team that has so much fun when we play? The ACC Tournament didn’t go how we wanted it to and I know there’s a lot of fire.”
Stephen F. Austin earned the Western Athletic Conference’s automatic bid Saturday with a 74-57 victory over Grand Canyon in the league tournament final.
Eight ACC teams made the field, with Louisville and N.C. State earning No. 1 seeds. Also earning berths are Notre Dame, VIrginia Tech, Miami, Georgia Tech and Florida State.
UNC is No. 7 in the NET rankings, which the selection committee uses as a tool in picking the field, after being as high as No. 2 earlier this season. The Tar Heels beat two teams in the top 10 in the NET in No. 5 Louisville and No. 10 Virginia Tech.
All six Carolina losses, five of which were on the road, came against four tournament teams: N.C. State (twice), Virginia Tech (twice), Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.
UNC is among the national leaders in scoring margin (seventh, +18.3), field-goal percentage defense (eighth, 34.9%; first in the ACC), rebounds per game (13th, 43.3; second in the ACC) and turnover margin (14th, 5.69; first in the ACC).
NCAA tournament bracket
NCAA tournament schedule
|First Four||Various||Various||Wednesday and Thursday||Various|
|First||Various||Various||Friday and Saturday||Various|
|Second||Various||Various||Sunday and Monday||Various|
|Sweet 16/Elite Eight||Bridgeport, Conn.||Webster Bank Arena||March 25 and 27||UConn/ Fairfield|
|Sweet 16/Elite Eight||Greensboro||Greensboro Coliseum||March 25 and 27||ACC|
|Sweet 16/Elite Eight||Spokane, Wash.||Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena||March 25 and 27||Idaho|
|Sweet 16/Elite Eight||Wichita, Kan.||Intrust Bank Arena||March 26 and 28||Wichita State|
|Final Four||Minneapolis||Target Center||April 1 and 3|
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. 17 Virginia Tech|
|16||70–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2||Road||No. 22 Notre Dame|
|20||61–52 win, 15–2, 5–2||Home||Virginia|
|23||55–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3||Road||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. 17 Virginia Tech|
|17||66–65 win, 20–5, 10–5||Home||No. 5 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||87–80 OT loss, 23–6||Greensboro||No. 17 Virginia Tech|
|—— NCAA Tournament ——|
|19||7:30 Saturday, ESPN News||Tucson, Ariz.||Stephen F. Austin|
Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications