Banghart has deftly built a budding national power at UNC

By R.L. Bynum

After the Carolina women’s basketball program’s steady ascension under Coach Courtney Banghart in her first two seasons, the Tar Heels have rocketed toward the national spotlight this season.

Banghart knew she had all of the elements for a special team before the season, even if most observers saw last season’s 13–11 finish and weren’t convinced. Only predicted to finish seventh in the ACC, the Tar Heels finished tied for third.

Even after a 13-game unbeaten streak to start the season, there were still skeptics. But with wins in nine of its last 11 games, No. 17-ranked Carolina has the basketball world’s attention with its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2015.

It’s just another step toward making No. 5-seed UNC (25–6) a national power as it challenges No. 1 South Carolina (31–2) at 7 p.m. Friday (ESPN) at Greensboro Coliseum in a semifinal of the Greensboro Region.

The first big step was making the NCAA tournament last season after UNC went 16–14 in her first season in 2019–20, even though Banghart admits she didn’t expect a long tournament run. Indeed, the Tar Heels lost to Alabama in the first round.

“But making the tournament was so important for that group,” said Banghart, whose team peaked at No. 16 in the AP poll this season on Feb. 28. “It was important for the national people to understand that we’re back. It was important for my current team to have one year’s experience understanding that March Madness is not a thought, it’s a reality. It was so important.”

This season brought a lot of milestones, starting with the first national ranking in six years in December. UNC has the most wins and first Sweet 16 berth since the 2014–15 team went 26–9. The 13 ACC wins were the most since the 2012–13 Tar Heels won 14 league games.

The wins over Stephen F. Austin (79–66) on Saturday and against Arizona on its home court Monday (63–45) showed that Carolina’s core of four sophomore starters had grown after previously going 0–3 in postseason games.

“This run is so important because it forces the media to pay attention, not to the past but to the future and to the current,” Banghart said. “It also forces our guys to again build habits on what our expectations are. These runs are all additive. And it’s partly why you know what [former Notre Dame coach] Muffet [McGraw] said about UConn — it’s like [Geno Auriemma’s] sustained success … they’re absolutely getting a benefit from that.”

Banghart and her coaching staff hit the recruiting trail hard and have effectively brought in talented recruiting classes. When she got to Chapel Hill after a wildly successful stint at Princeton — including eight NCAA tournament appearances, seven Ivy League titles and a national-coach-of-the-year honor in 2015 — plenty of challenges were in front of her.

“The hardest part of it is that you have so many decisions to make in a relatively short period of time that impact every decision you make after it,” Banghart said.

One decision she quickly made was to recruit the best high school players to fill the core of her roster rather than go for the quick fix of bringing in players from the transfer portal.

“I kind of made that decision early on that I was going to recruit my ass off and that we were going to get really good young talent here and we were going to let them play,” Banghart said. “And then we were going to sprinkle that in with some experienced pieces.”

She has dipped into the transfer portal the last two seasons to mix experience with youth. Before last season, she brought Stephanie Watts back to give the team length and speed and lured Petra Holešínská from Illinois to add shooting.

After last season, with a need for experienced playmaking and guard leadership, she brought in graduate transfers Eva Hodgson from William and Mary and Carlie Littlefield, who she had coached at Princeton.

Banghart said she looks at each player individually and how they might be right for the program before welcoming them to Chapel Hill

“It’s not lost on me that they have made the decision the right one because of how they’ve taken to me, how they’ve trusted me, how hard they’ve worked and how they’ve allowed themselves to see themselves through my eyes,” Banghart said. “Because I obviously saw great hope in them or I wouldn’t have recruited them. That’s really hard to do when you’re used to being the star and then I’m asking you to learn and they’ve just really let me coach them, they’d let me trust them and we’ve had just a really good time with one another.”

Banghart has thought a lot about each player as UNC has made its run to the Sweet 16.

“The gratitude I have for each individual kid has a special piece of the story,” Banghart said. “No one’s kind of along for the ride.”

The sophomores are the core of this team — including starters Deja Kelly, Alyssa Ustby, Kennedy Todd-Williams and Anya Poole — that boasts the No. 2-ranked freshman class. The two biggest stars of the latter class (Teonni Key and Kayla McPherson) have missed the entire season because of injuries and their presence next season will heighten expectations.

Jaelynn Murray is the only player on the current roster who has played for Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell, illustrating Banghart’s major roster reconstruction. It’s meant a very young team, but she has deftly integrated Littlefield and Hodgson.

“[With] the inexperience on this team, it’s remarkable what they’re able to do with the fact that they don’t get to lean on either collective experience or their own individual experience,” Banghart said. “And so they’ve just had to stay laser-committed to the day-to-day process.

“They’ve had to stay laser-committed to bringing their piece. I think we’ve got talent across the roster,” she said. “And you can’t always rely on the whole; the pieces have to bring what they bring as well. And so, to think about where this program was this time of year three years ago to where it is now, it would be hard not to be really proud of what my guys have done.”

Clearly, the best is yet to come for the Carolina program.

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
Location
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, 25–6RoadNo. 19 Arizona
257 p.m. Friday, ESPNGreensboroNo. 1 South Carolina
X —Goombay Splash; Y — Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

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