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The Daily Tar Heel

ANALYSIS: The glass-half-full outlook for UNC women's basketball

Paris Kea FSU
UNC Guard Paris Kea (22) shoots against FSU in Carmichael Arena on Sunday, Jan. 6, 2019. UNC lost 63-64.

While the 2018-2019 season thus far has produced perhaps more low moments on paper than expected, there are still plenty of reasons to hold optimism for the North Carolina women’s basketball team. Just ask head coach Sylvia Hatchell.

“People have got to understand – everybody – that this team is a really good team,” Hatchell said following the team's 64-63 loss to Florida State on Sunday. “It’s not the team that went through this NCAA stuff the last couple of years."

Just before that game, a 73-66 loss to then-No. 3 Louisville displayed the resilience and grit for UNC so integral to competing in the ACC — traits that, frankly, have been absent for the Tar Heels in recent years.

After trailing by as many as 19 points and finding themselves down 40-23 at halftime, the Tar Heels shot 62 percent in the third quarter and whittled the lead down to just two. Though a UNC upset was not to be, the close loss to a perennial title contender in the Cardinals gave the team a glimpse at its potential.

That potential was also on display in the Florida State loss, a back-and-forth game in which the Seminoles scored 10 of the last 15 points to nab the win. Still, three players finishing in double figures highlighted a balanced scoring effort.

“We can be a championship team when we play off each other because it doesn't matter who scores,” Bailey said. “At the end of the day, we have to win the game. That was the message (going into the second half) and we went out there and did it.” 

Though the Tar Heels have just a 9-7 record, and are winless through two games of ACC play, they have time and again shown flashes of strong play. Despite the inconsistent start, UNC perhaps could even vie for an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since the 2014-2015 season if the team is able to harness that potential.

Of course, the results will have to come first. This season marks the third year in a row in which the Tar Heels have started 0-2 in conference play and back-to-back years of finishing 15-16 have taken wind out of the Carolina Blue sails for optimistic UNC fans. 

But before disregarding this season for the Tar Heels, take a look at the individual talents on the squad. After a promising first-year campaign, sophomore center Janelle Bailey continues to shine, posting team highs in both points (17.1) and rebounds (9.3) per game. 

Redshirt junior guard Stephanie Watts has returned from a leg injury that ended her 2016-17 season and kept her out for the entire 2017-18 year and is averaging 15.3 points and 39.7 percent on 3-point shooting. Additionally, junior transfer Shayla Bennett has been steady at the point guard spot, leading the Tar Heels in both minutes (36.4) and assists (4.8).

It’s not just the numbers, however. If you ask those close to the program, there seems to be a renewed competitive fire in UNC, exemplified by Bennett’s halftime request in the loss against Louisville.

According to GoHeels, Bennett asked to guard Asia Durr, the reigning ACC Player of the Year who is averaging a team-high 20.9 points per game. Guarded by Bennett, Durr finished with just two points after halftime. 

Also notable was the performance of redshirt senior Paris Kea, the first team All-ACC guard of a season ago who has battled injuries and a shooting slump this year. After leading UNC with 19.4 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting, Kea is down to 13.8 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting, and an uncharacteristic 26.8 percent clip from 3-point range. But even though she’s missed three games this year due to injury, and has been limited in several others, her decreased production hasn’t negated her impact on the court.

After picking up her third foul less than a minute into the second quarter against Louisville, a clearly frustrated Kea walked to the bench. Rather than compounding her mistakes, however, Kea found other ways to affect the game, communicating on defense and making life easier for her teammates. Kea got hot in the second half, finishing with 13 points, all coming after halftime. After following that game up with a 17-point performance against Florida State, perhaps Kea has turned the corner and left her injury concerns behind for good.

Perhaps this is all too optimistic for a 9-7 team that dropped its first two games in the conference. But four of those losses are in single digits, with the biggest losses being by just 12 points. One gets the feeling that with a healthy Kea, a new attitude provided by veteran leadership, and just a few different bounces of the ball, this year could still be the one where the Tar Heels regain their footing and return to the NCAA tournament.


@DTHSports |

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