UNC women shrug after NCAA slight, determined to meet challenges ahead

By R.L. Bynum

While the loyal Carolina women’s basketball fans were outraged and surprised that the NCAA didn’t make the Tar Heels a host school in the NCAA tournament, the players and the coaching staff shrugged and looked ahead.

Juniors Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby admitted at a press conference Friday in Columbus, Ohio, that they were bummed because projections suggested that the No. 20-ranked Tar Heels would be able to play the first two rounds at Carmichael Arena.

“We quickly turned to page to who we’re playing when and where, and it comes down to matchups,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “We thought playing in Carmichael would give us a little bit of an edge because of our environment. But if you don’t like your matchup, it doesn’t really matter.”

Fans and observers assumed that Carolina being underseeded for the second consecutive season would lead to much talk within the team and give them extra motivation.

They don’t know this group.

“Actually, the conversation was more geared towards that the outside world have thought this would really fire them up,” UNC coach Courtney Banghart said. “All year, I’ve never needed to fire these guys up. Even the games we lost, it’s not been because of lack of heart or overconfidence.”

The No. 20-ranked and No. 6-seed Tar Heels (21–10) face No. 11-seed St. John’s (23–8) in their first-round game Saturday at 4 p.m. (ESPN) at the Schottenstein Center after the Red Storm held off Purdue 66–64 in a First Four game Thursday.

A win likely will advance UNC to a Monday game against No. 12-ranked and No. 3-seed Ohio State (25–7) on its homecourt, assuming the Buckeyes beat No. 14-seed James Madison (26–7) in the 1:30 game (ESPN2) Saturday.

It’s not as if this is a new situation for most of the Tar Heels, except for redshirt freshmen Kayla McPherson and Teonni Key, and true freshman Paulina Paris. As a No. 5 seed, Carolina met a similar challenge a year ago, storming to a 63–45 win over No. 5-seed Arizona on its home court in front of a full, loud McKale Center in the second round.

That prospect doesn’t faze Kelly.

“I love road games probably a little more just because it’s more exciting. You get to do your thing in front of other people’s fans,” Kelly said at a press conference on Friday. “I’m just a competitor. I like the hostile environments. I like when people are against us, against me, against us as a team.”

Kelly wanted to play in Chapel Hill, but quickly moved on when the team got sent to Ohio.

“That’s fine,” Kelly said. “We’ll take it and use it as fuel to move forward, keep moving forward and use it to our advantage. I like seeing the crowd pissed off and fans pissed off. That’s something I’ve always liked as a player.”

Banghart says that Ustby also likes to play in a road environment.

“So, luckily the ones that are actually trying to make the baskets and trying to make the stops are the ones that like to play on the road,” Banghart said.

Ustby also wishes that Carolina was a host. She says they can’t control the seeding but can control their mindset and approach to the game, which hasn’t changed.

“We’ve had a lot of great experience on the road this year just playing top 25 teams in a tough environment, and some of those younger girls on our team have already had an experience like that, so I think it’s pretty similar,” Ustby said.

With every Tar Heel except for redshirt senior reserve Ariel Young (out for the season with a knee injury) healthy, Banghart says her team is ready for what’s ahead and recognizes the challenges.

“They understand the mortality that March brings, and they understand that Ohio State is a lot like Carmichael, a lot like McKale at Arizona. Lots of people that won’t be rooting for them. You kind of got to go through their house,” Banghart said. “They’re not going to be surprised by it. They’re not going to [think] it’s hard to replicate that. So, in good sense, they’ve been there before.”

The talented junior class, with Kelly, Ustby, wing Kennedy Todd-Williams and center Anya Poole, lost 80–71 to Alabama in the first round of the NCAA tournament to end their freshman year; that experience served UNC well last season. After blowing past Arizona, the Tar Heels gave eventual national champion South Carolina its closest postseason challenge before losing 69–61.

That experienced group, along with fifth-year guard Eva Hodgson, knows what it takes to overcome the challenges on the road to make the Sweet 16.

“That experience definitely carries over, and I think, especially for some of the new guys that we have having their first tournament, we can share that experience with them so they know a little bit more what to expect than they would if we hadn’t had that experience,” Ustby said. “So, I think that’s a good advantage for us going into the tournament again this year.”

Kelly said that the ups and downs that the junior class has gone through will help them guide the younger players who will experience the NCAA tournament for the first time.


“I think it’ll definitely be beneficial for us because they can just follow our lead, and we can help them be more comfortable within the environment, within the atmosphere, because we’ve been there before,” Kelly said.

Carolina got valuable road experience this season, including losses against two No. 1 seeds — No. 2-ranked Indiana and No. 4-ranked Virginia Tech — and a win at No. 3 seed and No. 13-ranked Duke.

“In the ACC, we play a lot of road environments that you have to really be connected,” Banghart said. “And I think that there is a level of a focus that that requires when you can’t lean on anybody else. The fans that are here, I hope they provide some comforts of Carmichael for us, but the ones that aren’t are kind of how we’ve done it all year. We’ve got to do it for them on the road.”

Even if Carolina gets past St. John’s and likely Ohio State, No. 2-seed and No. 6 UConn likely awaits in the Sweet 16 and probably the Hokies in the Seattle Region 3 final.

The road won’t be easy, but these Tar Heels are ready for the challenge.

Columbus subregional

At the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio
Thursday’s play-in result

St. John’s 66, Purdue 64
Saturday’s first-round results
No. 3-seed Ohio State 80, No. 14 James Madison 66
No. 6 North Carolina 61, No. 11 St. John’s 59
Monday’s second round
Ohio State 71, North Carolina 69

(current ranking)
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. 17 Iowa State Portland6–0
DecemberACC/Big Ten Challenge
1ThursdayL, 87–63No. 2 IndianaBloomington, Ind.6–1
7WednesdayW, 64–42UNCWHome7–1
11SundayW, 99–67WoffordHome8–1
16FridayW, 89–47USC UpstateHome9–1
Jumpman Invitational
20TuesdayL, 76–68No. 18 MichiganCharlotte9–2
ACC season begins
29ThursdayL, 78–71Florida StateHome9–3, 0–1 ACC
1SundayL, 68–65No. 4
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
1–3 ACC
12ThursdayW, 70–59VirginiaCharlottesville, Va.11–5,
2–3 ACC
15SundayW, 56–47N.C. StateHome12–5,
3–3 ACC
19ThursdayW, 61–56No. 13 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
2ThursdayW, 73–62VirginiaHome17–5,
8–3 ACC
5SundayL, 62–55LouisvilleLouisville17–6,
8–4 ACC
9ThursdayL, 75–67SyracuseSyracuse17–7,
8–5 ACC
12SundayW, 73–55Boston CollegeHome18–7,
9–5 ACC
16ThursdayL, 77–66, OTN.C. StateRaleigh18–8,
9–6 ACC
19SundayW, 71–58Wake ForestHome19–8,
10–6 ACC
23ThursdayL, 61–59No. 4
Virginia Tech
10–7 ACC
26SundayW, 45–41No. 13 DukeDurham20–9,
10–8 ACC
MarchACC Tournament
2ThursdayW, 68–58Clemson Greensboro21–9
3FridayL, 44–40No. 13 Duke Greensboro21–10
NCAA tournament
18SaturdayW, 61–59 St. John’sColumbus, Ohio22–10
20MondayL, 71–69No. 12 Ohio State Columbus, Ohio22–11

Photo courtesy of UNC Athletics Communications


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