By R.L. Bynum
When the No. 18 Carolina women play Thursday in the second round of the ACC Tournament, it will only be the third game this season with their top 11 players.
That made the journey for Coach Courtney Banghart’s fourth Tar Heels team challenging. But, along the way, it developed depth that has made UNC one of the most versatile teams heading into the event at the Greensboro Coliseum.
UNC (20–9), the tournament’s No. 7 seed, plays at 6 p.m. Thursday against No. 10-seed Clemson (17–14), which beat No. 15-seed Pittsburgh in the first round Wednesday 71–53. In redshirt freshman Kayla McPherson’s first college game, the Tar Heels won 69–48 at Clemson on Jan. 29.
The Tar Heels will have to win on four successive days to capture the ACC title. Given that challenging scenario, Banghart is thankful for having plenty of roster options.
“You want to make sure you preserve as best you can, but you also have to win one at a time,” Banghart said. “Whenever you have options as coaches, you have better opportunities because you’re not putting so much on so few people. I really like our depth; I trust it, and it’s been proven.”
A Thursday win would earn a 6 p.m. quarterfinal Friday rematch with No. 13-ranked and No. 2-seed Duke (24–5). Likely waiting for UNC in a 2:30 semifinal game on Saturday, should it get that far, would be No. 8-ranked and No. 3-seed Virginia Tech (24–4), which swept the Tar Heels in games that came down to the final possession.
Banghart knew the team’s core would be the talented juniors — led by All-ACC first-team picks Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby and second-team pick Kennedy Todd-Williams. But all the other elements she expected coming into the season weren’t there until late last month.
“We’ve got some depth added in due to all the injuries that we sustained all year long,” Banghart said. “So, nothing changes. We’ll be as healthy as we’ve been all year. So that’s a good thing too. That influx of energy and confidence has been really helpful at the right time.”
Carolina started the season without a pair of talented, highly recruited redshirt freshmen who had missed last season recovering from right ACL injuries. Forward Teonni Key didn’t play until the third game and McPherson missed the first 20 games after injuring her left knee.
Two starters — fifth-year guard Eva Hodgson and Ustby — both were out in the heart of the ACC season. Hodgson (upper-body injury) missed eight games and Ustby (lower-body injury) was out for five games.
It all forced the Tar Heels’ reserves into heavy minutes, creating one of the ACC’s deepest teams.
Evidence of that depth came when Carolina finished off its 45–41 victory Sunday at Duke with a pair of reserves — McPherson, in only her ninth college game, and sophomore Destiny Adams — on the court in a huge game.
“If you told me that that would be the group that was in at the end of the game. I don’t know if I would have believed you,” said Banghart, who knew both were ready for the moment.
She’s also counted on true freshman guard Paulina Paris for heavy minutes, including all 40 in one game. Paris and McPherson earned ACC earn rookie-of-the-week honors, making UNC the only team with two players to do that.
“I don’t know if we beat N.C. State at home without her,” Banghart said of Paris, who scored a pair of huge 3-pointers in that game. “These are people that have had success in ACC games. We hope that they can feel good about that because we sure do.”
The leader all season, particularly when UNC played short-handed and with various lineups, has been Kelly, who leads the team in scoring (16.5 points) and assists (93) and has pulled down six rebounds in two of the last three games.
The numbers don’t reflect the extra attention she gets from defenses every game and her leadership on the court.
Carolina is battle-tested, with three of its ACC losses by four points or fewer and both Virginia Tech losses coming down to poor execution at the end.
“It’s just a league that the possessions matter so much because of how sound all these teams are,” Banghart said. “You have to be great in both ways. Sometimes you’ll lean on one side more than the other of the ball depending on how the game goes. The possessions really matter.”
It’s a quick turnaround for Clemson after beating Pittsburgh.
“Well, the first thing that we’ve got to do is just be elite in our recovery, and then we’ve got to get back to studying,” Clemson coach Amanda Butler said. “It’s crazy in the tournament. We’re so familiar with everyone, but some of these teams, it’s been weeks since we prepared for them. We’ll have a great scout. We’ll have a great game plan. But what matters most is our players getting off their feet and hydrating, getting a good meal and then we’ll get to scouting. But we have a tremendous amount of respect for Courtney and her squad and we know they’ll challenge us in some specific ways, and we’ll be ready.”
Banghart seeks her first ACC tournament victory after the Tar Heels lost their first game in each of her first three seasons.
Final on ESPN; all other games on ACC Network
Wednesday’s first round
No. 12-seed Wake Forest 68, vs. No. 13-seed Virginia (15–15) 57
No. 10 Clemson 71, No. 15 Pittsburgh (10–20) 53
No. 11 Boston College 62, No. 14 Georgia Tech (13–16) 57
Thursday’s second round
Wake Forest 65, No. 5 Florida State (23–9) 54
No. 8 N.C. State 83, No. 9 Syracuse (18–12) 58
No. 7 North Carolina 68, vs. Clemson (17–14) 58
No. 6 Miami 84, vs. Boston College (16–16) 69
No. 4 Louisville 74, Wake Forest (16–16) 48
No. 1 Notre Dame 66, N.C. State (20–11) 60
No. 2 Duke 44, North Carolina (21–10) 40
No. 3 Virginia Tech 68, Miami (19–11) 42
Louisville 64, Notre Dame (25–5) 38
Virginia Tech 58, Duke (25–6) 37
Virginia Tech (26–4) 75, Louisville (23–11) 67
|9||Wednesday||W, 91–59||Jackson State||Home||1–0|
|16||Wednesday||W, 93–25||South Carolina State||Home||3–0|
|20||Sunday||W, 76–65||James Madison||Harrisonburg, Va.||4–0|
|Phil Knight Invitational|
|27||Sunday||W, 73–64||No. 17 Iowa State||Portland||6–0|
|December||ACC/Big Ten Challenge|
|1||Thursday||L, 87–63||No. 2 Indiana||Bloomington, Ind.||6–1|
|16||Friday||W, 89–47||USC Upstate||Home||9–1|
|20||Tuesday||L, 76–68||No. 18 Michigan||Charlotte||9–2|
|ACC season begins|
|29||Thursday||L, 78–71||Florida State||Home||9–3, 0–1 ACC|
|1||Sunday||L, 68–65||No. 4 |
|Blacksburg, Va.||9–4, 0–2 ACC|
|5||Thursday||L, 62–58||Miami||Coral Gables, Fla.||9–5, 0–3 ACC|
|8||Sunday||W, 60–50||No. 10 |
|12||Thursday||W, 70–59||Virginia||Charlottesville, Va.||11–5, |
|15||Sunday||W, 56–47||N.C. State||Home||12–5, |
|19||Thursday||W, 61–56||No. 13 Duke||Home||13–5, |
|22||Sunday||W, 70–57||Georgia Tech||Home||14–5, |
|26||Thursday||W, 72–57||Pittsburgh||Pittsburgh||15–5, |
|29||Sunday||W, 69–58||Clemson||Clemson||16–5, |
|2||Thursday||W, 73–62||Virginia||Home||17–5, |
|5||Sunday||L, 62–55||Louisville||Louisville||17–6, |
|9||Thursday||L, 75–67||Syracuse||Syracuse||17–7, |
|12||Sunday||W, 73–55||Boston College||Home||18–7, |
|16||Thursday||L, 77–66, OT||N.C. State||Raleigh||18–8, |
|19||Sunday||W, 71–58||Wake Forest||Home||19–8, |
|23||Thursday||L, 61–59||No. 4 |
|26||Sunday||W, 45–41||No. 13 Duke||Durham||20–9, |
|3||Friday||L, 44–40||No. 13 Duke||Greensboro||21–10|
|18||Saturday||W, 61–59||St. John’s||Columbus, Ohio||22–10|
|20||Monday||L, 71–69||No. 12 Ohio State||Columbus, Ohio||22–11|
Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications