No. 7 UNC women navigate through injury challenges in their 8–1 start

By R.L. Bynum

The 8–1 start for Carolina’s No. 7-ranked women’s basketball team while facing three ranked teams is even more impressive considering the many injury issues the Tar Heels have had to overcome.

So many players were dealing with physical issues that the team’s scrimmage on Oct. 7 at Live Action With Carolina Basketball became four-on-four. Its scheduled closed home scrimmage against No. 1 and reigning national champion South Carolina was deferred until next season.

“We didn’t have enough bodies to actually play,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said Monday on her radio show.

September is a busy time for basketball programs, when coaches need to prepare players for the season. Banghart couldn’t do as much as she would have preferred.

“We didn’t get to practice much,” Banghart said. “You can’t all of a sudden care about rebounding in December. You’ve got to build that foundation.”

With players restricted, she had to have some players off one day, others off the next and still others off the third day. It made it running practices a challenge for Banghart.

“It shortened our playbook,” Banghart said. “It shortened our secondary defenses and things. So, we had to use some game experience to do that. They all had these really different injuries, but we’re getting a little healthier.”

UNC still doesn’t have 5–8 redshirt freshman Kayla McPherson (top photo). But all 11 other players have played the last two games, the latest a 99–67 Sunday win over Wofford, as the Tar Heels prepare to host South Carolina Upstate at 6 p.m. Friday (ESPN3).

McPherson, a four-star point guard who put on a spectacular display in the 2021 Late Night 3-point shooting contest, missed last season recovering from a torn right ACL she suffered in high school. Before practice started, she had more surgery for an unrelated lower-body injury.

“I just love the kid,” Banghart said of the No. 4-ranked point guard in the Class of 2021. “She’s just everything you’d want in a kid and a competitor. In terms of her recovery, I’m afraid to ask because I’ll be disappointed because it’s not tomorrow, right? But when it actually is, I’m not sure. Whenever she plays this year, I lose a year with her. If she can be ready sooner rather than later, we’ll give it go.”

Her comments seem to suggest that it’s possible that McPherson may not play until next season if she isn’t cleared to play until the second half of the season.

The initial timeline for McPherson’s possible return was after the non-conference schedule, which ends with Tuesday’s Jumpman Invitational matchup at 7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN2) in Charlotte with No. 19 Michigan (9–1).

Banghart said that McPherson is running on the sidelines during practices and will be one of the best players she’s ever coached.

“She’s incredibly dynamic,” Banghart said. “Great two-way player. For sure, the fastest I’ve ever coached.”

Another major recruit in Carolina’s Class of 2021, five-star forward Teonni Key, also had right ACL surgery and returned for the Nov. 16 romp over South Carolina State for her first action in three years.

Key has shown flashes of her talent and the difference she can make for the team. She has 30 points, 26 rebounds and seven blocks in 97 minutes over seven games.

Versatile wing Alyssa Ustby came into the season on minutes restrictions for a few games. She was banged up after playing for the United States in three-on-three competition. Point guard Deja Kelly missed one game with a left ankle injury.

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Redshirt senior guard Ariel Young, who missed last season recovering from left ACL surgery, returned two games ago for the UNCW victory. Wearing a long brace on her left leg, she’s working back to game shape after not playing previously since March 2021.

Another guard making a huge difference for UNC is graduate student Eva Hodgson, who leads the ACC and is 11th in the country with 52.2% 3-point shooting.

With junior Deja Kelly taking over most of the playmaking duties, Banghart wants scoring from Hodgson. Banghart said Hodgson started the season wanting to be a distributor but made a point to the MBA student during the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland last month.

“I basically told her you can sit next to me on the bench if you don’t shoot it,” Banghart said on the radio show.

Hodgson has scored a career-high five 3-pointers twice this season (against Oregon and Wofford), made four against James Madison and has multiple 3-pointers in every game since only scoring one in each of the first two games.

Hodgson has played 40 minutes twice this season while being a sharpshooter from the perimeter, so she isn’t watching much alongside Banghart. In addition, she’s also been a playmaker. She dished out six assists in Sunday’s win over Wofford and had eight against South Carolina State.

Banghart just hopes that another guard, McPherson, will soon make her college debut instead of watching from the bench.

NOTES —South Carolina Upstate (3–6; 349 out of 361 in the NET ranking) beat Morehead State 64–59 Monday to snap a six-game losing streak and beat Montreat 60–41 on Wednesday. Among Upstate’s losses were to Virginia Tech (79–24), Vanderbilt (74–45) and Old Dominion (57–31). Graduate guard Isabella Geraci leads the Spartans with 10.5 points and 6.9 rebounds. … UNC’s 12 3-pointers against Wofford were the most since notching 12 on Nov. 15, 2019, against Charleston Southern. … Jackson Watkins, one of the women’s program’s former practice players, hit a late 3-pointer to give the UNC men’s team 100 points on Tuesday night against The Citadel.  

UNC statistics


DateMonth/dayTime/scoreOpponent/event
(current ranking)
LocationTV/record
November
9WednesdayW, 91–59Jackson StateHome1–0
12SaturdayW, 75–48TCUHome2–0
16WednesdayW, 93–25South Carolina StateHome3–0
20SundayW, 76–65James MadisonHarrisonburg, Va.4–0
Phil Knight Invitational
24ThursdayW, 85–79OregonPortland5–0
27SundayW, 73–64No. 21 Iowa State Portland6–0
DecemberACC/Big Ten Challenge
1ThursdayL, 87–63No. 2IndianaBloomington, Ind.6–1
7WednesdayW, 64–42UNCWHome7–1
11SundayW, 99–67WoffordHome8–1
16FridayW, 89–47USC UpstateHome9–1
Jumpman Invitational
20TuesdayL, 76–68No. 12 MichiganCharlotte9–2
ACC season begins
29ThursdayL, 78–71No. 19
Florida State
Home9–3, 0–1 ACC
January
1SundayL, 68–65No. 11
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, Va.9–4, 0–2 ACC
5ThursdayL, 62–58MiamiCoral Gables, Fla.9–5, 0–3 ACC
8SundayW, 60–50No. 10
Notre Dame
Home10–5,
1–3 ACC
12ThursdayW, 70–59VirginiaCharlottesville, Va.11–5,
2–3 ACC
15SundayW, 56–47No. 22 N.C. StateHome12–5,
3–3 ACC
19ThursdayW, 61–56No. 9 DukeHome13–5,
4–3 ACC
22SundayW, 70–57Georgia TechHome14–5,
5–3 ACC
26ThursdayW, 72–57PittsburghPittsburgh15–5,
6–3 ACC
29SundayW, 69–58ClemsonClemson16–5,
7–3 ACC
February
2ThursdayW, 73–62VirginiaHome17–5,
8–3 ACC
5SundayL, 62–55LouisvilleLouisville17–6,
8–4 ACC
9Thursday7 p.m.SyracuseSyracuseACCNX (ESPN3)
12SundayNoonBoston CollegeHomeACCNX (ESPN3)
16Thursday8 p.m.No. 22 N.C. StateRaleighACCN
19Sunday4 p.m.Wake ForestHomeACCN
23Thursday8 p.m.No. 11
Virginia Tech
HomeRSNs
26SundayNoonNo. 9 DukeDurhamRSNs
March
ACC Tournament
1–5Wednesday–SundayTBATBAGreensboroACCN Wed.-Sat.; final on ESPN or ESPN2
You can buy tickets to home games here. ACCN means the game airs on ACC Network. ACCNX means that the game is only streaming on ACC Network Extra (ESPN3.) RSNs means the game airs on regional sports networks (in many cases, Bally Sports but also MASN, NESN and Yes Network.)

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications

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