UNC women have been poised against the kind of relentless pressure defense Stephen F. Austin likely to apply

By R.L. Bynum

Many opponents thought they could apply pressure defense on Carolina’s women, force turnovers and dictate the play.

That hasn’t worked out well most of the season.

No. 12-seed Stephen F. Austin (28–4) is the latest team that will likely give that strategy a shot when it faces the No. 5-seed and 17th-ranked Tar Heels (23–6) at 7:30 Saturday night in Tucson, Ariz., (ESPN News) in the first round of the NCAA Greensboro Region.

“Their defense starts at 94 feet,” third-year UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “Most teams’ defense starts at 40 feet. The minute there is a change of possession, they are all over you. So this is not a game where you can settle in. You’ve got to attack it.”

The Ladyjacks are second in the country in turnovers forced per game (24.2) and turnover margin (+8.34) and fifth in the country in steals per game (12.4). But they probably haven’t faced a team that has been as poised against their type of full-court pressure this season as they will Saturday.

“That’s the decision that they have to make and how they want to utilize it, and we have to be able to attack accordingly,” Banghart said. “But I think we’re difficult to press if we maintain the attack mindset. That’s the decision they’re gonna have to make.”

The opponents that have brought the most pressure this season have been Miami, Clemson and Syracuse. All three pressed the Tar Heels a little differently but all three came away with decisive losses. It takes a cool mindset to not get rattled in those situations and they’ve done it all season.

Deja Kelly, putting up a shot during practice Thursday in Tucson, Ariz., welcomes Stephen F. Austin’s pressure defense.

“I think pretty much all season it’s about being poised, not letting anybody who has pressured us speed us up,” sophomore guard Deja Kelly said. “Even though we like to play fast, I think once we break the pressure pretty well, we execute pretty well after the fact.”

What makes it easier for Carolina is that it has plenty of players with point guard experience in Kelly and graduate transfers Carlie Littlefield and Eva Hodgson, so that one player doesn’t

“I don’t think it will be any different come [Saturday],” Kelly said. “We’re going to stay poised. Me and Carlie, we have the ball in our hands a lot. Just us working together to break that pressure and then just getting us into our stuff afterward. I think we’ll be fine.”

UNC has handled pressure by not letting the other team dictate the play and the speed. Carolina pushed for lengthy outlet passes in an attempt to produce transition buckets early in the upset of Louisville but shifted after that wasn’t successful and, of course, got the huge signature win.

“Pressure is about not letting it get you too sped up, but also not letting it slow you down in the half-court,” Littlefield said. “So, just continuing to be in that attack mindset. And I think we’ve been good at that all year just because we trust each other a lot and you have to break a press five against five. So, I think we’ve done a good job of finding out ways we can be most helpful to each other over the full court.”

Some teams cower in the face of that sort of pressure defense but Kelly said that the Tar Heels see it as an opportunity to make the opponent pay.

“I would say so,” Kelly said. “We like pressure. I personally like pressure. It allows you to attack, probably get them in foul trouble. Personally, that’s something I like to do to our opponent. I think this is a great opportunity for us.”

If Carolina has success early against Stephen F. Austin’s pressure, that could force the Ladyjacks to pull away from what has worked for them all season.

“When you look at pressure, what it does is, it’s high risk, high reward,” Banghart said. “It’s either highly risky for you because you’re giving the other team a runway or it’s highly rewarding, in which case you’re generating stops.”

Stephen F. Austin’s Aiyana Johnson and Stephanie Visscher both average a team-leading 13.3 points per game, with Visscher 28th in the country in steals per game at 2.59.

If Carolina can get out in transition as it has many times this season, it could be a long evening for the Ladyjacks.

Greensboro Regional

First round
Friday’s games
At Colonial Life Arena
Columbia, S.C.

Miami 78, South Florida 66
South Carolina 79, Howard 21
At James H. Hilton Coliseum
Ames, Iowa

Georgia 70, Dayton 54
Iowa St. 78, Texas-Arlington 71
At Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Iowa City, Iowa

Creighton 84, Colorado 74
Iowa 98, Illinois St. 58
Saturday’s games
At McKale Center
Tuscon, Ariz.

North Carolina (23-6) vs. Stephen F. Austin (28-4), 7:30 p.m.
Arizona (20-7) vs. UNLV (26-6), 10 p.m.
Second round
Sunday’s games
At Colonial Life Arena
Columbia, S.C.

South Carolina (30-2) vs. Miami, 2 p.m.
At James H. Hilton Coliseum
Ames, Iowa

Iowa State (27-6) vs. Georgia (21-9), 7 p.m.
At Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Iowa City, Iowa

Iowa (25-7) vs. Creighton (21-9), noon
Monday’s games
At McKale Center
Tuscon, Ariz.

Arizona-UNLV winner vs. North Carolina-Stephen F. Austin winner, TBA
Regional semifinals
At Greensboro Coliseum
Friday, March 25

South Carolina/Miami winner vs. Arizona-UNLV/North Carolina-Stephen F. Austin winner, TBA
Iowa/Creighton winner vs. Iowa St./Georgia winner, TBA
Regional Championship
At Greensboro Coliseum
Sunday, March 27

Semifinal winners, TBA

DateScore, record/
time, date, TV
(current rank)
November (6–0)
992–47 win, 1–0HomeN.C. A&T
1489–33 win, 2–0RoadCharlotte
1789–44 win, 3–0HomeAppalachian State
2179–46 win, 4–0RoadTCU
2672–59 win, 5–0Bimini, BahamasX — VCU
2758–37 win, 6–0Bimini, BahamasX — Washington
December (6–0, 2–0 ACC)
182–76 win, 7–0RoadY — Minnesota
593–47 win, 8–0HomeJames Madison
12107–46 win, 9–0HomeUNC Asheville
15Game canceledHomeJacksonville
1976–63 win, 10–0, 1–0 ACCRoadBoston College
2183–47 win, 11–0HomeAlabama State
3079–43 win, 12–0, 2–0HomeSyracuse
January (4–4, 4–4 ACC)
281–62 win, 13–0, 3–0 ACCHomeClemson
672–45 loss, 13–1, 3–1RoadNo. 3 N.C. State
971–46 win, 14–1, 4–1HomeNo. 21 Virginia Tech
1670–64 loss, 14–2, 4–2RoadNo. 17 Notre Dame
2061–52 win, 15–2, 5–2HomeVirginia
2355–38 loss, 15–3, 5–3RoadNo. 25 Georgia Tech
2778–62 win, 16–3, 6–3RoadDuke
3066–58 loss, 16–4, 6–4HomeNo. 3 N.C. State
February (7–1, 7–1 ACC)
378–59 win, 17–4, 7–4RoadWake Forest
685–38 win, 18–4, 8–4HomeMiami
1064–54 win, 19–4, 9–4HomePittsburgh
1366–61 loss, 19–5, 9–5RoadNo. 17 Virginia Tech
1766–65 win, 20–5, 10–5HomeNo. 5 Louisville
2064–49 win, 21–5, 11–5RoadFlorida State
2468–57 win, 22–5, 12–5RoadVirginia
2774–46 win, 23–5, 14–5HomeDuke
March (0–1)
—— ACC Tournament ——
487–80 OT loss, 23–6GreensboroNo. 17 Virginia Tech
—— NCAA Tournament ——
197:30 Saturday, ESPN NewsTucson, Ariz.Stephen F. Austin
X — ACC/Big Ten Challenge; Y — Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off; Z — CBS Sports Classic

Photos courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s