By R.L. Bynum CHAPEL HILL — Carolina fans already knew that Alyssa Ustby was versatile from watching her score, pass, rebound, distribute and defend on the basketball court with dogged determination. But they didn’t know just how versatile until she kicked it up a few notches at halftime of UNC’s #TyleeStrong Spring Football Game on…
After a breakout season that ended by giving eventual national champion South Carolina its toughest NCAA tournament game, expectations are high for North Carolina’s women’s basketball team next season. The Tar Heels peaked in the AP Top 25 at No. 16 on Feb. 28 but are higher than that in two “way-too-early” preseason rankings that came out this week. The only ACC team picked higher than Carolina on both lists is Notre Dame.
GREENSBORO — North Carolina’s women’s basketball team invested so much into the season. For all the intangibles that so often worked out for the No. 5-seed and 17th-ranked Tar Heels, they could have used something else when reaching the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
A little more height.
After the Carolina women’s basketball program’s steady ascension under Coach Courtney Banghart in her first two seasons, the Tar Heels have rocketed toward the national spotlight this season. Banghart knew she had all of the elements for a special team before the season, even if most observers saw last season’s 13–11 finish and weren’t convinced. Only predicted to finish seventh in the ACC, the Tar Heels finished tied for third.
Carolina is one of three schools with both its men’s and women’s teams in the Sweet 16 and fans will get the chance to gather twice Wednesday to send each team off for their Friday regional semifinal games. UNC, which has both teams in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2015, joins Iowa State and Michigan as the only schools with its men’s and women’s team still playing in the NCAA tournament.
Players live for the sort of moments Carolina’s women’s team experienced Monday night. For the talented sophomore class that battled through a 13–11 freshman season that ended with a first-round NCAA tournament loss to Alabama, the road to a Sweet 16 berth was long but the realization of that accomplishment was thrilling. When third-year UNC coach Courtney Banghart took Deja Kelly out late in the game, there was one of those moments. The player and the coach she trusted so much that the Texas high school star committed to be a Tar Heel exchanged some emotional words.
Carolina’s relentless defense has been frustrated many opponents all season. Add Arizona to that list, and put the Tar Heels down for their first Sweet 16 in seven years.
UNC held the Wildcats scoreless for nearly 11½ first-half minutes to take control on their way to a 63–45 true road victory Monday night in Tucson, Ariz., in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
North Carolina faces a challenging scenario for Monday night’s second-round NCAA women’s tournament game that never happens in the men’s tournament. The No. 5-seed and 17th ranked Tar Heels (24–6) will have to beat No. 4-seed and 19th-ranked Arizona (21–7) on the Wildcats’ homecourt before a crowd of likely more than 10,000 at the McKale Center to earn their first Sweet 16 berth since 2015. They’ll also have to get by a team with a talented backcourt and a tall, imposing group of post players.
North Carolina showed again what it has done many times when facing adversity this season: Handle it, show poise, take control and leave the opponent reeling. A sensational 28-point game from Deja Kelly, an animated halftime speech from third-year UNC coach Courtney Banghart and a decisive 14–3 fourth-quarter run ensured the first NCAA tournament win for her and all of her players.
Many opponents thought they could apply pressure defense on Carolina’s women, force turnovers and dictate the play. That hasn’t worked out well most of the season. No. 12-seed Stephen F. Austin (28–4) is the latest team that will likely give that strategy a shot when it faces the No. 5-seed and 17th-ranked Tar Heels (23–6) at 7:30 Saturday night in Tucson, Ariz., (ESPN News) in the first round of the NCAA Greensboro Region.
While most men’s teams play their NCAA tournament openers a few days after their conference tournaments, most women’s teams don’t even know their tournament draw for a week afterward. It’s an odd dynamic that women’s coaches have to deal with on an annual basis and this is the 10th time for North Carolina’s third-year coach Courtney Banghart and the second time for most of her players.
CHAPEL HILL — All season, Coach Courtney Banghart has talked about her Carolina women’s basketball team’s connectedness, and the players’ enthusiasm for what’s ahead was obvious as they gathered at Top of the Hill restaurant to see where their March journey starts. Carolina’s breakout season will continue as the No. 5-seed in the Greensboro Region of the NCAA tournament, facing No. 12-seed Stephen F. Austin (28–4) Saturday in the first round in Tucson, Ariz. Should the Tar Heels advance to the second weekend, they would play in Greensboro. The top seed in the region is No. 1-ranked South Carolina.