The No. 4 Tar Heels (17-5, 3-4 ACC) draw No. 12 Stanford (14-5, 5-1 Pac-12) at 2 p.m. on Saturday in College Park, Maryland, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite on-the-field inconsistencies this year, the team is confident going into the weekend matchup.
“It’s pretty cliche, but you just gotta keep believing,” said captain Julia Young.
While North Carolina has dueled with many of the nation’s top schools during its strong schedule, the Tar Heels haven’t played a team west of the Mississippi River this season.
UNC hasn’t played the Cardinal since 2012, when the Tar Heels beat Stanford twice in two months — including in the first round of the NCAA Tournament that season.
“We’re excited to play a new opponent,” Coach Karen Shelton said. “It’s kind of fresh to have somebody we haven’t played and know nothing about, and kind of have to start from scratch.”
Leadership will need to be strong for the Tar Heels this weekend, as the veterans guide a young team into a tournament that a handful have not yet experienced.
Young has embraced this role, and rightfully so. As a senior, it almost comes with the territory.
“I wouldn’t say I feel the pressure, but I feel more comfortable doing it,” Young said.
“I feel like it’s kind of part of being a senior, that you just step up.”
Though North Carolina has no prior knowledge of its opponent, it does have experience playing on the field.
In redshirt senior Emma Bozek’s first year in Chapel Hill, Maryland was still a member of the ACC.
“(I’ve played there) a handful of times, a bunch,” Bozek said. “Enough to be definitely comfortable with their field and know what to expect.”
This experience will come in handy for the Tar Heels, who haven’t started the NCAA Tournament away from Henry Stadium since 2009 — the last time the program took home a title.
“This year is a little bit different because we’re not hosting,” Young said. “I think just trying to keep everyone into it, keeping the belief there. Just because we’re not hosting doesn’t mean anything.”
Belief has been key for the Tar Heels, as this season has been one of the most volatile in recent memory — the five losses entering the NCAA Tournament are the most for the Tar Heels since 2013, the last time they had five losses.
“This season was very different from any other season I’ve been a part of,” Bozek said.
“Many more ups and downs this year. It’s been quite the roller coaster, and I think anyone will tell you that.”
The team’s three captains — Young and co-captains Bozek and Lauren Moyer — have made it a point to keep team morale up and the focus keen on moving forward. With wins against ACC rivals Syracuse and Duke and impressive comebacks throughout the season, this North Carolina team has shown it can play with any team in the country.
“It’s gonna be really important for us, as leaders, to keep reminding everyone what we’re here for, why we’re doing this and what the aim is at the end of the season,” Bozek said.
“And now we’re so close, it’s within our reach. We just have to act on it.”