The North Carolina women’s basketball team is anxious.
After going 15-16 last year and finishing second to last in the ACC standings, the Tar Heels are determined to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015. The team gets its first shot to showcase its skill against Hampton on Friday in Carmichael Arena.
There’s plenty of reason for optimism. Guards Paris Kea and Stephanie Watts, both preseason All-ACC selections, lead a team that returns its top five scorers from a season ago.
Last year Kea turned in a stellar campaign leading the Tar Heels with 17.2 and 4.1 assists per game. She was top five in the conference in scoring and also averaged 2.2 steals, all while leading the ACC in minutes played (36.2). The 5-foot-9 guard, now a redshirt junior, had 13 20-point outbursts a season ago.
“Paris can play about any position on the floor,” head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “Her midrange game is tremendous. It’s as good as anybody in the country.”
Watts, now a junior, forms the other part of the Tar Heels' deadly one-two punch. Last season, she averaged career highs in points (16.8) and rebounds (7.9), both of which ranked sixth best in the conference. Watts is a deadly outside shooter and converted 81 three-pointers a season ago, including an ACC-record 10 against Charleston Southern.
She also scored a career-high 39 points in the record-breaking win. Watts’ effort extends onto the defensive side of the floor, where she ranked top ten in conference in both steals (2.0) and blocks (1.2). Watts hasn't played in either of UNC's exhibitions though while she recovers from injury.
At last year’s season-ending banquet, guard Destinee Walker was voted as the team's top defensive player for a second consecutive season. She averaged 1.1 steals per game to go along with 12.4 points and 3.7 rebounds. Walker missed the last ten games of the season and has not played in an exhibition either.
Jamie Cherry was voted the team's top offensive player at that same banquet. She averaged a career-high 14.9 points a season ago and was potent from three, converting 37.7 percent from long range. Cherry and Watts give the Tar Heels two dangerous options from the perimeter.
“We’re just having fun” Kea said. “Coach Crawley tells us to have fun. So I know when I drive in, Jamie is in the corner, she knocks down the three, I get the assist. There you go. We are happy.”
Sophomore guard Taylor Koenen will provide a big boost for the Tar Heels off the bench. As a first-year, Koenen seemed to get better every game and ended the season with four double-digit scoring efforts in her last six games. Filling in for an injured Watts in the last five contests, Koenen averaged 10 points and 7.4 rebounds. She'll likely see an increased role this season, especially early on as Watts continues to recover from her injury.
“I don’t know if there’s anyone that worked harder over the summer than Taylor,” Hatchell said. “She’s put in time, she’s really worked on her shot. I just think that she’s going to continue to be a utility player that can do a lot of things and she will do things at time that surprise you. She’s sort of a clean up person out there, getting a rebound or making a certain play at certain times.”
UNC returns four other players to a packed roster, including sophomore guard Olivia Smith, who averaged 3.9 points as a first-year. Sophomore forward Emily Sullivan also returns after a strong finish to last year’s campaign. She averaged six points a game in her final four games of the regular season and led the team with nine blocks in two ACC Tournament games.
Second-year players Naomi Van Nes and Liz Roberts round out the returning players for North Carolina. The 6-foot-6 Van Nes scored a career-high eight points against Jacksonville and collected seven rebounds in a contest against Clemson. Roberts joined the team as a walk-on.
With first-year, highly touted bigs Jaelynn Murray and Janelle Bailey giving the Tar Heels some desperately needed help in the post, the other Tar Heels will go back to playing their natural positions. Hatchell’s team is primed for an improved finish in the ACC this season.