For three years, the North Carolina women’s basketball team had been defined by who wasn’t on its roster.
At the beginning of the 2017-18 season, though — which began over two years after the four players that made up the top-ranked recruiting class of 2013 unexpectedly transferred — the Tar Heels charged into the program’s newest era hopeful that their program’s darkest days were behind them.
After all, the final member of the 2013 team, Hillary Fuller, graduated in 2017. The shadow that hung over the program due to pending NCAA sanctions was lifted before the 2017-18 season began. And, with the addition of first-year forwards Jaelynn Murray and Janelle Bailey, North Carolina had a means to combat its recent struggles with frontcourt depth.
All this UNC team had to do was put the cultural shift in motion.
“I knew when I came here, I could have a big role…” Bailey said days before her regular season debut. “I think we’re going to shock a lot of people this year.”
In review of the first half of the 2017-18 campaign, the Tar Heels (11-5, 1-2 ACC) have backed up the optimistic rhetoric they spread at the beginning of the season.
The Tar Heels are averaging 78.9 points per game, over six points per game more than the 2016-17 squad, and they’re doing it with a much more balanced offensive attack. Last season, the team put up 25.8 3-point attempts per game; so far this season, North Carolina is averaging 16.7 attempts from deep per game.
First-year contributors Bailey — who was recently honored as the 2017 USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year — and Murray are among the team’s top-three rebounders. Bailey is also adding 15.3 points per game.
However, through the first 16 contests Bailey has limited herself on the court when she’s gotten into foul trouble. The center has accumulated 62 fouls thus far in her first-year campaign.
“I realize that every game we’ve lost, I have fouled out of," Bailey said after North Carolina’s loss to Mercer. "I don’t know when that’s going to click for me. I have to realize my value to the team.”
The Tar Heel backcourt is developing some young talent of its own. With former ACC Freshman of the Year Stephanie Watts and two-year starting guard Destinee Walker having been sidelined all year due to injury, sophomore guard Taylor Koenen has stepped up as North Carolina’s best rebounder and one of the team’s most potent perimeter scorers.
Koenen is averaging 9.6 points per game and leads the team with 8.1 rebounds per game.
Despite a boost in help from the team’s new faces, redshirt junior Paris Kea and lone senior Jamie Cherry are still North Carolina's go-to playmakers and scorers. The ball is in their hands when the game is on the line. In North Carolina’s most recent victory over Pittsburgh, for example, Kea found Cherry who hit the three to put the Tar Heels up by one with 12 seconds remaining in the game.
The rebuilding process is far from over for this streaky Tar Heel team, of course. After losing its first game of the season to Hampton, UNC won 10 of its next 11 games — and celebrated head coach Sylvia Hatchell’s 1,000th career win in that stretch. Then, the Tar Heels lost three in a row, which included a head-scratching loss to Mercer and a 38-point blowout loss to Florida State.
But even though the team’s consistency may always be in question for the remainder of the season, one thing is clear: The Tar Heels are no longer defined by four players transferring two years ago.
And, in whatever context, that’s a step in the right direction.
This week, the Tar Heels will take on Clemson at home on Thursday before traveling to Winston-Salem for an in-state matchup with Wake Forest on Sunday.
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