By R.L. Bynum
CHARLOTTE — Coach Courtney Banghart is so confident that her fourth Carolina women’s basketball team will make a deep NCAA tournament run that she wanted her team to get some time at home this summer to prepare for a long season.
She took her Tar Heels on a whitewater rafting trip to West Virginia in the summer of 2021 for a team-bonding trip. Instead of doing that last summer, she told her players to go home.
“We intentionally didn’t do an event because too much time is also a thing, right,” Banghart said Tuesday at ACC Tipoff. “I want to be playing in April. So, instead, I wanted them to go home and be away because I want this journey to be a little bit longer than it was last year, a whole ‘nother week or two longer.”
Even with a preseason injury to redshirt freshman point guard Kayla McPherson, the Tar Heels have an injection of new talent that makes them more versatile.
Although UNC went 25–7, finished No. 17 in the AP poll and gave eventual national champion South Carolina its most formidable challenge on the Gamecocks’ way to winning the national championship, the Tar Heels’ run ended in the Sweet 16.
They want to extend that to a Final Four run next season.
One big step would be to earn at least a top-four NCAA seed, which would mean first- and second-round games in Carmichael Arena. UNC was one seed line away from that last season.
“We really want to host,” Banghart said. “I think that’s a real, attainable goal for us. You have to have a great non-conference [schedule]. You have to have great results. We play in a great conference that gives us lots of opportunities for big wins, and I want these guys to be prepared in a variety of environments.”
This team will likely be in the top 10 of the preseason AP Top 25 and be picked to finish high in the ACC, which is probably the best conference in women’s basketball. That would seem to put a lot of pressure on this team, but junior guard Deja Kelly doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think we really take it as pressure,” said Kelly, who led UNC in scoring and was fourth in the ACC at 16.5 points per game. “I think we’re more so taking it as just giving us more reason to compete every day and to work even harder.”
Kelly knows that more opponents will have UNC circled on their schedules, hoping to pull the upset.
“Either way, we’re gunning for you, and we’re ready to compete, and we’re looking to win,” Kelly said. “So, we’re just going to keep our heads down and take it each day, game by game, and compete like we do.”
Junior wing Kennedy Todd-Williams, who does a little of everything for the Tar Heels, recognized the preseason hype with some of the questions that the Tar Heels fielded on Tuesday.
“We have a little bit more expectations from our experience group, and that’s the beauty of it,” said Todd-Williams, who averaged 10.8 points and 5.8 rebounds and scored in double figures in 14 of the last 17 games. “Coach is expecting a lot from our experience group offensively and defensively, so helping these younger guys along and growing from there.”
Carolina has dealt with some bad news for the second consecutive preseason before it even plays the first game.
A year after finding that highly touted freshmen Teonni Key and McPherson would miss the season while recovering from right ACL surgeries, news came out earlier this week that McPherson is hurt again.
McPherson, who was expected to get plenty of time at point guard, was scheduled this week for surgery on a lower-body injury unrelated to her previous injury and is expected to be out until at least the end of December.
“We just lost Kayla McPherson for a little period of time. Not as bad as the first time. She creates a great dynamic for us as well,” Banghart said.
The good news for Banghart is that, although she lost starting guard Carlie Littlefield from last season, Kelly, freshman Paulina Paris and fifth-year player Eva Hodgson all have point guard experience.
“Paulina Paris has brought so much New York flair to our game and gives us a combo guard that gives us the ball in her hands, and she can facilitate play,” Banghart said.
Even Todd-Williams could play point guard, a position she played in high school, but Banghart prefers to keep her on the wing because she’s so difficult to guard there.
“Every single one of my guards played point guard in high school, so they’ve all had the balls in their hands to facilitate,” Banghart said. “Our offensive system requires facilitation at all spots. So we will have four point guards and, at times, we’ll have two at a time. We’ll have any number of things.”
With McPherson out of the mix for the early part of the season, Banghart said that Hodgson and Kelly would “play a bunch” at point guard.
“I think our offense will be by committee, as it was last year,” Banghart said. “We want to play fast. Whoever rebounds should just go. If they can’t go, they should pass with the closest guy who can, and then they go. So, the facilitation will be on all hands.”
Kelly said that all of the guards being able to play multiple roles will make the Heels a challenge for opponents.
“I think that makes us a lot harder to guard because you don’t have one set point guard who is waiting for the ball,” Kelly said. “We are able to play fast because anybody can push it up.
“We don’t have one player on the team that’s the same, which I think is very beneficial because that means you have a lot of versatility,” Kelly said. “We have a lot of different people who can bring the ball up and a lot of two-way players.”
Adding the 6–4 Key to the mix for her redshirt freshman season will bring toughness and talent to the frontcourt. ESPN ranked her No. 9 in the Class of 2021.
“That’s a big body,” Kelly said of Key. “She is a very skilled player and brings us size as well. But I think just her and Paulina, they just bring different types of players.”
UNC, of course, still has junior wing Alyssa Ustby, who was a double-double machine last season and contributes in so many ways.
Todd-Williams says that the variety of skills Key, Paris and, eventually, McPherson will bring to the team makes this season’s team more dangerous.
“Teonni is very long. Kayla is very fast. Paulina can shoot the lights out, and she has pace to her,” said Todd-Williams, who grew up in eastern North Carolina in Jacksonville. “They’re their own mixture of where they came from. I think that helps us. Most of us were from North Carolina. We have other players from other states bringing their little flair to the game, showing us a little mixture of what they can do. It’s helping us.”
This Carolina team is ready for the long haul, hoping their season doesn’t end until the Final Four. They rested during a trip home last summer with that in mind.
|16||Wednesday||93–25||South Carolina State||Home||3–0|
|20||Sunday||76–65||James Madison||Harrisonburg, Va.||4–0|
|Phil Knight Invitational|
|24||Thursday||85–79||No. 18 Oregon||Portland||5–0|
|27||Sunday||73–64||No. 5 Iowa State||Portland||6–0|
|December||ACC/Big Ten Challenge|
|1||Thursday||6 p.m.||No. 6 Indiana||Bloomington, Ind.||Big Ten Network|
|7||Wednesday||6 p.m.||UNCW||Home||ACCNX (ESPN3)|
|11||Sunday||1 p.m.||Wofford||Home||ACCNX (ESPN3)|
|16||Friday||6 p.m.||South Carolina – Upstate||Home||ACCNX (ESPN3)|
|20||Tuesday||7 p.m.||No. 22 Michigan||Charlotte||ESPN2|
|ACC season begins|
|29||Thursday||8 p.m.||Florida State||Home||RSN|
|1||Sunday||4 p.m.||No. 11 Virginia Tech||Blacksburg, Va.||ACCN|
|5||Thursday||6 p.m.||Miami||Coral Gables, Fla.||ACCNX (ESPN3)|
|8||Sunday||4 p.m.||No. 7 Notre Dame||Home||ACCN|
|12||Thursday||7 p.m.||Virginia||Charlottesville, Va.||ACCNX (ESPN3)|
|15||Sunday||3:30||No. 13 N.C. State||Home||ESPN|
|22||Sunday||4 p.m.||Georgia Tech||Home||ACCN|
|26||Thursday||6 p.m.||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||ACCNX (ESPN3)|
|5||Sunday||Noon||No. 10 Louisville||Louisville||ESPN2|
|9||Thursday||7 p.m.||Syracuse||Syracuse||ACCNX (ESPN3)|
|12||Sunday||Noon||Boston College||Home||ACCNX (ESPN3)|
|16||Thursday||8 p.m.||No. 13 N.C. State||Raleigh||ACCN|
|19||Sunday||4 p.m.||Wake Forest||Home||ACCN|
|23||Thursday||8 p.m.||No. 11 Virginia Tech||Home||RSN|
|1–5||Wednesday–Sunday||TBA||TBA||Greensboro||ACCN Wed.-Sat.; final on ESPN or ESPN2|
Photo courtesy of the ACC