A new era for the North Carolina women’s basketball team looks ready to unfold.
Sure, some of the same key players are back, but the Tar Heels are evolving this season into a squad that can impose itself on the opponent. You could already start to see a transformation being made as the team thumped Mount Olive, 102-47, during an exhibition game on Monday.
“It makes a huge difference having some more size in there, it really does,” head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “Last year, they’d just lock us up outside and it was hard because our perimeter kids were always guarded. Now, with inside they’re having to give attention in there.”
In the new season, the team is still relatively inexperienced. With 6-foot-4 first-year center Janelle Bailey and 6-foot-2 first-year forward Jaelynn Murray plugged into the lineup, the Tar Heels are learning on the fly, but they now have enough strength and height to pull down more rebounds on both ends of the floor.
An inside presence is something the Tar Heels haven’t had for several years now. Last year, the team only had senior Hillary Fuller to fill that role. Once she was out to injury, they didn’t have anyone who really had the size to contribute to the rebounding column, an essential part of creating offensive points and taking away opportunities defensively.
Now, they have two.
“I knew when I came here, I could have a big role,” Bailey said. “I knew that I was playing with good people, have good teammates and, as you can see, I think it’s working out well. I think we’re going to shock a lot of people this year.”
On the boards, Murray and Bailey brought down 12 and nine rebounds, respectively, and added a combined 29 points. They showed signs of their inexperience at times, but their presence allowed the offense to breathe.
As an older player, Paris Kea said she always tries to remind the two first-year players to focus on rebounding. For Bailey, physicality was a main priority on the floor against the Trojans after not performing as well as she wanted in the first game of her college career.
“No one lets you have anything easy,” said Bailey. “They don’t care if you’re 6-foot-4, 200 pounds. You have to earn every possession. Every time you get the ball you have to earn every point you can get.”
Kea, a redshirt junior, is one of the players who is already benefiting the most with Murray and Bailey on the court. After playing the stretch four last year at just 5-foot-9, the guard was able to spend more time Monday on her natural outside game.
After 30 minutes on the court, she finished with a game high 22 points, seven rebounds, six steals and eight assists.
“Paris is so versatile,” Hatchell said. “She can play just about any position on the floor, and she’s got very good skills.”
The win again Mount Olive — and an earlier 84-62 exhibition victory over Wingate last Wednesday — doesn't mean the team has it all figured out. It’s still going to be a process.
“They’ve only played together a couple games," Hatchell said, "so I think they’re going to get better and better.
The new Tar Heels will have their first real test Friday, when they take on Hampton at home to open the season. As the season gets going, it’ll only give the young team more chances to learn about itself.
“All the practice is over,” Hatchell said. “Now, it’s for real.”
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