Special moments as Carolina’s women earn Sweet 16 berth

By R.L. Bynum

Players live for the sort of moments Carolina’s women’s team experienced Monday night.

For the talented sophomore class that battled through a 13–11 freshman season that ended with a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Alabama, the road to a Sweet 16 berth was long but the realization of that accomplishment was thrilling.

When third-year UNC coach Courtney Banghart took Deja Kelly out late in the game, there was one of those moments. The player and the coach she trusted so much that the Texas high school star committed to be a Tar Heel exchanged some emotional words.

“She just told me how proud she was of me and I just expressed how happy, excited I was,” Kelly said. “It was just a moment of like, we did it. We’ve been through so much. We have had such a long season and we’ve just been waiting for this moment. We’ve had talks about getting here, getting to the Sweet 16. We are finally going, so I think that exchange was just really special for us.”

Carolina (25–6) always figured to be considered a national title contender next season when two talented, highly recruited freshmen who have missed this season because of injuries — Teonni Key (whose sister Tamari is in the Sweet 16 with Tennessee) and Kayla McPherson — finally start their college careers and Eva Hodgson returns along with all of the sophomores.

This No. 5-seed and 17th-ranked Tar Heels want no part of waiting to do damage on the national stage. They showed it with suffocating defense in a decisive 63–45 victory late Monday night over Arizona on its home court in front of 8,333 fans at the McKale Center.

“Our guys were just really disciplined,” Banghart said. “And you have to be. We said you’re going to have to beat a really good team on the road, a really good team, and you’re going to have to go through them. You can’t go around them; you can’t ask them nicely to move. You’re going to have to go right through them, and I thought they did that.”

At one point in the game when the crowd was getting loud and trying to be a factor to help the Wildcats rally, Kennedy Todd-Williams — who played lockdown defense on Arizona’s Shaina Pellington in addition to collecting 19 points, seven rebounds and five assists — gave her teammates a thumbs-up as if to say that the Tar Heels had this.

“Yeah, I think it’s a little distraction but I looked at all the players and I’m like, you know, we are good. We’re OK,” Todd-Williams said. “They are going to go on a run, but we just have to stay composed and just know that everything’s fine. You know, as long as we’re connected, nothing can stop or break in between us.”

And nothing did.

Just like when the Tar Heels persevered through some rough times in the first round before pulling away in the final quarter Saturday to beat Stephen F. Austin 79–66, they didn’t get rattled by the loud home crowd.

After Carolina went on a big run during Arizona’s nearly 11½-minute first-half scoring drought, it was just a matter of holding off any surges from the Wildcats. There were moments that provided a dagger, and one of them was when Kelly hit a jumper for a three-point play at the end of the third quarter to push the lead to 20 points.

“That was a huge momentum-builder for us,” said Kelly, who scored 15 points. “Coach told me to get the ball in my hands with the last, I think it was, 12 seconds on the clock. I saw who is guarding me and I just attacked. She bit — she kind of jumped at that first move — and then I just crossed, went up, she fouled me, went in, and our little student fan section went crazy. Our bench went crazy. So that was definitely a momentum-shifter for us.”

Carolina hasn’t always been the best perimeter shooting team but has usually found a way to overcome that in the games when the 3-point attempts aren’t falling. The Tar Heels were 2 of 9 from outside the arc, but overcame it with crisp passing that led 15 of 21 field goals to be assisted.

Now, it’s back closer to home in the Greensboro Coliseum for a 7 p.m. semifinal (ESPN) in the Greensboro Regional against No. 1 South Carolina (31–2), the tournament favorite. The Tar Heels will be the heavy underdogs in the game, but they’ve pulled off a big upset against the Gamecocks before.

In 2014, a No. 4-seed Carolina team stunned No. 1-seed South Carolina in a Stanford Regional semifinal 65–58 before falling to Stanford 74–65 in the regional final. The Gamecocks avenged that loss in 2015 when they beat UNC 67–65, with both having the same seeds as the season before.

Like this season, that 2015 Sweet 16 game was played in Greensboro. Friday will mark UNC’s first Sweet 16 appearance since then. Carolina is familiar with South Carolina from playing in a preseason closed scrimmage against the Gamecocks in Columbia, S.C., in October.

“South Carolina is one of the very best teams in the country and they have some of the very best players in the country,” Banghart said. “They are incredibly dominant inside. You’re playing the No. 1 seed overall — them and Stanford are fighting for that right now. That challenge will be formidable.

“I know it’s a very quick turnaround because we are on the other side of the Earth right now and we have to get back home,” Banghart said late Monday from Tucson. “But we have played them. We’ve recruited those players, so we know them well. Familiarity obviously is clear. Our guys are going to give what we got and that’s a very, very good basketball team and it will be exciting to be playing them in Greensboro.”

Many national observers doubted this team so much that it didn’t get ranked until Dec. 13 and dropped out for one week on Jan. 24 after a loss at Georgia Tech. There are also plenty who will doubt their chances of beating the mighty Gamecocks.

Banghart’s group is determined to once again prove them all wrong.

NCAA Sweet 16

Greensboro Regional
At Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro
Friday’s regional semifinals
No. 1 South Carolina (31–2) vs. No. 5 North Carolina (25–6), 7 p.m., ESPN
No. 3 Iowa State (28–6) vs. No. 10 Creighton (22–9), 9:30 p.m., ESPN2
Sunday’s regional final
South Carolina-North Carolina winner vs. Iowa St.-Creighton winner, TBA
Wichita Regional
Saturday’s regional semifinals

No. 1 Louisville (27–4) vs. No. 9 Tennessee (25–8), 4 p.m., ESPN2
No. 3 Michigan (24–6) vs. No. 10 South Dakota (29–5), 6:30 p.m., ESPN2
Monday’s regional final
Louisville-Tennessee winner vs. Michigan-South Dakota winner, TBA
Spokane Regional
At Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, Spokane, Wash.
Friday’s regional semifinals
No. 2 Texas (28–6) vs. No. 6 Ohio State (25–6), 7 p.m., ESPN2
No. 1 Stanford (20–3) vs. No. 4 Maryland (23–8), 9:30 p.m., ESPN
Sunday’s regional final
Stanford-Maryland winner vs. Texas-Ohio St. winner, TBA
Bridgeport Regional
At Total Mortgage Arena, Bridgeport, Conn.
Saturday’s regional semifinals
No. 1 N.C. State (31–3) vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (24–8), 11:30 a.m., ESPN
No. 2 Connecticut (27–5) vs. No. 3 Indiana (24–8), 2 p.m., ESPN
Monday’s regional final
N.C. State-Notre Dame winner vs. Connecticut-Indiana winner, TBA
Final Four
At Target Center, Minneapolis
Greensboro winner vs. Spokane winner, TBA
Wichita winner vs. Bridgeport winner, TBA
Sunday, April 3 national final
Semifinal winners, TBA

DateScore, record/
time, day, 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 (2–1)
—— ACC Tournament ——
487–80 OT loss, 23–6GreensboroNo. 17 Virginia Tech
—— NCAA Tournament ——
1979–66 win, 24–6Tucson, Ariz.Stephen F. Austin
2163–45 win, 25–6RoadArizona
257 p.m. Friday, ESPNGreensboroSouth Carolina
X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

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