UNC has elite women’s roster with 11 who were five- or four-star recruits

By R.L. Bynum

Coach Courtney Banghart’s fifth North Carolina team will be her deepest and most talented.

That will create plenty of competition for playing time and many more options at her disposal — with the transfer portal still packed with available players.

When a roster has numerous players who were five-star or four-star recruits, it’s a sign of an elite program. Think reigning national champion LSU (who added Louisville transfer Hailey Van Lith on Thursday) and perennial powers UConn and South Carolina.

Think UNC.

The Tar Heels, who ascended as high as No. 6 last season in the AP Top 25 poll and finished 22–11, are in rare company with 11 players who were either five- or four-star recruits.

Iowa State senior transfer guard Lexi Donarski (ESPN’s No. 14 player in the Class of 2020; top photo), who committed Monday to UNC, Stanford sophomore transfer Indya Nivar (who committed to UNC on Sunday) and incoming freshman stretch-five Ciera Toomey (No. 14 in the Class of 2023) boost the Tar Heels’ five-star total to six.

The stars aligned

Five stars
Ciera Toomey, No. 4 in high school Class of 2023
Teonni Key, No. 9 in Class of 2021
Deja Kelly, No. 10 in Class of 2020
Lexi Donarski, No. 14 in Class of 2020
Indya Nivar, No. 20 in Class of 2022
Anya Poole, No. 49 in Class of 2020
Four stars
Kayla McPherson, No. 17 in Class of 2021
Paulina Paris, No. 27 in Class of 2022
Reniya Kelly, No. 30 in Class of 2023
Alexandra Zelaya, No. 89 in Class of 2020
Rylee Grays, No. 90 in Class of 2023

They join redshirt sophomore center Teonni Key (No. 9 in the Class of 2021), senior guard Deja Kelly (No. 10 in the Class of 2020 and an ACC-leading No. 12 on On3.com’s list of top players by NIL value) and senior center Anya Poole (No. 49 in the Class of 2020) as five-star players playing for the Tar Heels.

In addition, UNC will also have five four-star players on the roster even after losing four-star Destiny Adams (No. 21 in the Class of 2021), who is transferring to Rutgers.

Joining redshirt sophomore guard Kayla McPherson (No. 17 in the Class of 2021), sophomore guard Paulina Paris (No. 27 in the Class of 2022) and senior center Alexandra Zelaya (No. 89 in the Class of 2020) as four stars on the UNC roster are incoming freshmen guards Reniya Kelly (No. 30 in the Class of 2023 and Rylee Grays (No. 90 in the Class of 2023).

As next season’s roster stands, although more additions are likely, Coach Hubert Davis’ men’s program has only two five stars in fifth-year center Armando Bacot (No. 18 in the Class of 2019) and Stanford transfer junior Harrison Ingram (No. 22 in the Class of 2021).

The men’s team has seven four stars in Notre Dame transfer fifth-year wing Cormac Ryan (No. 65 in the Class of 2018), senior guard RJ Davis (No. 43 in the Class of 2020), junior guard D’Marco Dunn (No. 49 in the Class of 2021), sophomore center Jalen Washington (No. 40 in the Class of 2022), sophomore guard Seth Trimble (No. 49 in the Class of 2022), freshman guard Simeon Wilcher (No. 27 in the Class of 2023) and freshman forward Zayden High (No. 75 in the Class of 2023).

The men could add a five star to next season’s roster if either Class of 2024 recruits Elliot Cadeau (No. 10 in the class) or Ian Jackson (No. 5) reclassify.

High school recruiting rankings aren’t always accurate, and high rankings don’t always mean a player will be a college star, though. Center Malu Tshitenge — although a key player off the court — was a reserve for most of her UNC career after being a five-star recruit, ranked No. 27 in the Class of 2019. Conversely, senior Alyssa Ustby criminally didn’t make the ESPN list of 100 top players in the Class of 2020.

Three incoming freshmen for the UNC women’s team were state players of the year — Reniya Kelly in Alabama, Laila Hull in Indiana and Toomey in Pennsylvania — with Kelly and Toomey both winning state titles. Grays earned Greater Houston Player of the Year honors.

Donarski, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year last season, not only gives Carolina a lockdown defender but a player who is a proven prolific 3-point shooter at the college level. In only three seasons at Iowa State, she has already scored 196 3-pointers, more than two guards who transferred to UNC — Eva Hodgson (193) and Carlie Littlefield (140) — collected in four seasons.

Seven players have scored more 3-pointers at Carolina, but all of them played four seasons: Ivory Latta (345), Stephanie Watts (275), Coretta Brown (251), Nikki Teasley (236), Stephanie Lawrence (277), Italee Lucas (226) and Jamie Cherry (222).

Carolina will have six players with point guard experience: McPherson, Deja Kelly, Paris, Donarski and incoming freshman walk-on Sydney Barker. However, Kelly, McPherson, Paris figure to get most of the time at that position.

Barker, 5–7, averaged 27.8 points per game last season for Jordan High School in Durham, earning first-team District 6 honors.

The Tar Heels have six players 6–2 or taller: 6–2 Poole, 6–3 Boston College transfer Maria Gakdeng, 6–3 Grays, 6–4 Key, 6–4 Zelaya and 6–4 Toomey.

A good problem for Banghart is figuring how who to start.

Deja Kelly, Ustby and Donarski figure to take three spots. While Poole is the returning starter at the five spot, she’ll get plenty of competition from Gakdeng, Toomey and Key.

Whoever starts will likely play fewer minutes than last season’s starters. The Tar Heels’ depth fortifies them in case of injuries after a season in which the entire roster never was available for a game, and they even had to play with only eight available players.

Starters Ustby (five games) and Hodgson (eight games) each missed multiple games, as did McPherson (20 games) and Key (two games). Reserve Ariel Young only played in three games.

The lineup combinations may be uncertain, but the Tar Heels will certainly be an exciting team to watch next season.

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
26thBlanca Thomas (5 star)C6–5
65thJordan ZubichG5–11
Class of 2025
20thLanie Grant (5 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

Photo via @lexi_donarski


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