Dynamic UNC guard recruit Reniya Kelly won first of four state titles at age 12; at 7, ‘Broadway’ wanted to be great

By R.L. Bynum

Seven-year-old Reniya Kelly is in tears after she struggles with a ball-handling drill at an AAU tryout. Kelly keeps crying, embarrassed that she can’t do it better.

Kelly sits silently in the back seat during the 20-minute drive home up Interstate 59 until her dad pulls over after they take the Allison-Bonnett Memorial Drive exit southwest of Birmingham, Ala. Even though they are almost home, he wants to stop and ask what’s wrong.

“ ‘I need you to show me how to be great,’ ” her dad U.J. Mitchell recalls her saying that day in response. “I knew that comment was different, coming from a child that young.”

From that day until Kelly was 12 or 13, Mitchell, who played high school basketball, worked with his daughter on her game. Age never limited a kid who won races at swim meets when she was five.

There have been few reasons for tears since that frustrating day for the dynamic point guard nicknamed “Broadway” because of the shows she puts on during games. There have been plenty of tear-jerkers, but only for opponents.

One of four members of Coach Courtney Banghart’s talented incoming Carolina freshman class, Kelly — who MaxPreps named second-team All-American on Thursday — played a little soccer at an elite level as well but sought greatness on the basketball court.

“Reniya’s just been a hard worker all her life; she’s just a perfectionist,” Mitchell said. “It’s a gift and a curse. Reniya has always been a person that anything she touches, it just flourishes because she’s so competitive and she always wants to do things right.”

ESPN’s No. 30 player in the Class of 2023 and No. 6 point guard helped Hoover High School win an Alabama Class 7A state title as a reserve when she was 12 and in eighth grade, scoring the game-winning bucket in the state semifinals.

“It was just crazy for me to be in that environment,” said Kelly, who says she was 5–4 or 5–5 at that point but, “with shoes,” is now 5–8. “I was much smaller, and I did not have a lot of muscle. I was the smallest person out there, literally.”

After the Bucs lost in the state championship game in her ninth-grade season, she earned state tournament MVP each time in leading Hoover to the last three state titles.

In fifth grade, Kelly first realized she had star potential while playing on an AAU team. She noticed lots of people were coming to her games, and didn’t understand why.

“ ‘They’re coming to see you,’ ” Kelly said she was told. “ ‘They want to see how you play because you’re the best player in the state.’ Ever since then, I’ve just kept working toward different goals and trying to get my game better.”

Kelly earned Gatorade state player-of-the-year honors like another member of UNC’s incoming freshman class, 6–1 wing Laila Hull of Zionsville, Ind. She joined another member of the class, 6–4 forward Ciera Toomey of Dunmore, Pa., (ranked No. 4 in the class by ESPN), in going out as a state champion. The fourth player in the class, 6–3 center Rylee Grays of Houston (No. 90), led her team to the state semifinals.

“ ‘Let’s make this a national championship,’ ” Kelly recently texted Toomey. “I think that’s the main goal because UNC made it far, but I want to go further. I think that’s the biggest thing, us trying to win a national championship. Me and Ciera, we talk a lot.”

All Kelly knows is winning; she doesn’t expect that to change during her Carolina career.

“I think when you have been winning so much, that’s all you know,” she said. “So now you don’t want to lose any games. So, I think this has instilled in me that mentality that I don’t want to lose. I’m gonna do everything in my power to get the dub. That mentality is way different. All I think about is winning. Our first loss — I don’t want us to lose —  but I’m going to be devastated because all I know is winning. So, it’s going to be different for me definitely.”

Hoover beat 13 out-of-state teams in going 35–1 this past season with a challenging national schedule. The Bucs went 168–10 in her five seasons, as Kelly broke the school’s career scoring record with 2,272 points. Hoover traveled for games in Georgia and South Carolina, and Banghart was on hand in early December when she had a big game at the Queens of the Castle event in Blythewood, S.C.

“We chatted and had a good time after the game,” Kelly said.

Kelly scored a game-high 25 points and made 5 of 7 3-point attempts in a 55–44 victory over Sparkman in the state-championship game last month.

“She’s the best player in Hoover High School history,” Hoover coach Krystle Johnson said after the game. “She’s the best basketball player in the state and has been for the last three years.”

Kelly said it was hard to process that her high school career was over and that she wouldn’t play with her teammates again or for Johnson.

“Honestly, this past championship game was very emotional; it was bittersweet,” Kelly said. “It was very heartfelt, very sad, but it was a memorable moment for sure.”

Also in March, Kelly collected 23 points, eight rebounds, five assists and a steal in Alabama’s 88–74 victory over Mississippi in the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game on March 11 to earn MVP honors.

Kelly’s official visit to UNC with her family in October of her junior year convinced her that Carolina was the place for her. Mitchell said the coaching staff had been recruiting her hard since eighth or ninth grade.

“Banghart and the staff, when she was younger, and they were calling and just developing that relationship and just being very consistent,” Mitchell said. “And then when we went, it was like, whoa!”

Kelly attended Late Night With Roy and the Tar Heels’ home football win over Miami that weekend.

“I loved Chapel Hill,” said Kelly, who was also considering Alabama and Baylor before that visit. “I just loved everything about it — the place, the area, the coaching staff, the players. Their style of play fits me. When I went home, I couldn’t see myself anywhere else.”

Her parents wanted her to be sure about her decision and to consider other schools.

“She was like, ‘we can go visit wherever you want. But I know this is what I want,’ ” Mitchell remembers Kelly saying.

It took a while for her parents to realize that she wouldn’t budge.

“It really felt like home to me,” Kelly said. “So, that whole month. I kept telling my parents, ‘I want to commit to North Carolina. That’s where I want to go.’ They would not process it. So, I finally sat them down one night. I was like, ‘let’s go and proceed with it.’ And that’s what we did. Ever since, I’ve just been locked in.”

Mitchell had other visits lined up, including to Miami, but Kelly didn’t want to go. She committed on Nov. 20, just over a month after the visit.

“I just really love how they make you feel like you’re at home,” Kelly said of the UNC women’s program. “They’re really family-oriented, and they really treat you like their family, so I really feel good about them.”

Kelly says she’s a gym rat and will be there every day between now and when she arrives in Chapel Hill on June 18, sometimes doing two workouts a day. She still got in her workouts during a spring break beach trip last week.

Kelly averaged 14.7 points, five assists, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.4 steals while making 47% of her 3-point attempts during her senior season, shooting at least 50% from outside the arc in 20 of 36 games. She scored at least four 3-pointers five times last season, dished out double-figure assists twice and pulled down double-figure rebounds three times.

She joins a talented group of lead guards in rising senior Deja Kelly, no relation to Reniya, sophomore Paulina Paris and redshirt sophomore Kayla McPherson.

Reniya Kelly is ready for the challenges ahead.

“It’s a lot of guards. So you have to be competitive and try to earn your spot. I’m ready to compete,” she said. “[Banghart] told me it’s gonna be competitive, but you’re gonna be all right. She was basically saying, ‘just do you. I want you to push the tempo, push the ball, get some fast points.’ So she just like, ‘I want you to facilitate and do what you do.’”

A Broadway show will have a four-year run in Carmichael Arena. She and some of her friends came up with the “Broadway” nickname after Kelly attended some shows in New York.

“I put on a show, but not just scoring-wise. I do everything. I can pass, I can play defense, I can shoot, I can facilitate,” Kelly said. Her friends told her she puts on a show, “so let’s be ‘Broadway.’ I like how it sounds. I like how it looks on me, so I just stuck with it.”

After never beating any of Kelly’s Hoover teams, rival Vestavia Hills High School is happy the show will shift to the college level.

“Reniya is elite,” Vestavia Hills coach John Smelser said in the press release announcing Kelly — who has a 3.88 GPA — as the Alabama Player of the Year. “She is looking to create for teammates, but she is also capable of getting a bucket whenever she wants. It is no fun trying to gameplan to stop her because she can do so much more than score.”

Vestiavia Hills lost to Hoover four times last season.

“It’s really a blessing to know that teams struggle with trying to find out how to stop me,” Kelly said. “They had a couple of times they could have got us but they couldn’t because I made some clutch plays.”

Unprompted by anybody else, the right-handed Kelly has proactively made her left hand and arm stronger to become a better player, including writing, brushing her teeth and opening doors left-handed.

“In training, I do a lot of left-handed things,” Kelly said. “I pass with my left hand in training. I can actually shoot with my left hand. People always get me confused with being left-handed. I’m actually right-handed. I’m just very strong in my left hand.”

Kelly, who compares her game to Phoenix Suns and former Wake Forest star Chris Paul because of how he facilitates, prides herself on playing well on both ends of the court.

“I love defense. I’m not even gonna lie. I think defense wins games,” Kelly said. “When you play lock-down defense, no one is going to beat you. I really take pride in my defense. I think there’s really a big difference between me and others; I can really play lockdown defense.”

Adding Kelly and three other star freshmen to the core of three returning senior starters will undoubtedly make Carolina national contenders next season.

“Broadway” wouldn’t have it any other way.

UNC roster

Here is Carolina’s projected roster with their class for next season listed.

YearReturning playersPos.Height
RS Soph.Kayla McPhersonPG5–8
SeniorDeja KellyPG5–8
Soph.Paulina ParisPG5–9
SeniorAlyssa UstbyF6–1
SeniorAnya PooleF6–2
RS Soph.Teonni KeyF6–4
SeniorAlexandra ZelayaF6–4
Incoming transfers
SophomoreIndya Nivar (Stanford)G5–10
SeniorLexi Donarski (Iowa State)G6–0
JuniorMaria Gakdeng (Boston College)C6–3
ESPN rankIncoming freshmenPos.Height
30thReniya Kelly (4 star; Alabama POY)PG5–7
Laila Hull (Indiana POY)W6–1
90thRylee Grays (4 star Alabama POY)F6–3
4thCiera Toomey (5 star)F6–4
Sydney Barker (walk-on)PG5–7
Class of 2024
10thBlanca Thomas (5 star)C6–5
3rd in Minn.Jordan ZubichG5–11
Class of 2025
23rdLanie Grant (4 star)G5–9
College careers overPos.Height
Eva HodgsonPG5–10
Ariel YoungW6–1
Malu TshitengeF6–3
Outgoing transfers
Kennedy Todd-Williams (Ole Miss)W6–0
Destiny Adams (Rutgers)F6–3

Photos courtesy of U.J. Mitchell



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