For the first time in four years, the North Carolina women's basketball team will be going dancing.
On Monday, the Tar Heels were announced as the Greensboro Region's No. 9 seed in the 2019 NCAA Tournament and will face off against No. 8 seed California in Waco, Texas on Saturday. The at-large tournament bid is UNC's first since the 2014-15 season, meaning this will be the first taste of March Madness for the entirety of head coach Sylvia Hatchell's roster.
The bid comes after an 18-14 campaign and an 8-8 mark in conference, highlighted by wins over then-undefeated Notre Dame (now a No. 1 seed) and N.C. State (a No. 3 seed).
In the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels won their opening matchup against Georgia Tech, 80-73, then dropped the next game to Notre Dame, 95-77. In that game, redshirt senior Paris Kea recorded a team-high 27 points, but North Carolina was unable to stymie the Fighting Irish, allowing Notre Dame to shoot 58 percent from the field and 46.7 percent from 3-point range.
After a tumultuous few years that included the Tar Heels losing their entire No. 1 2013 recruiting class due to an alleged athletic-academic scandal hanging over the program, UNC is finally back on a winning track. North Carolina followed up a 14-18 season with back-to-back 15-16 campaigns, a disappointing chapter in Hatchell's Hall of Fame career.
Four Tar Heels averaged double-digit points in the regular season: Kea (17.1 points per game), sophomore Janelle Bailey (16.7), redshirt junior Stephanie Watts (15.2) and junior guard Shayla Bennett (11.2). With all of those players healthy, the Tar Heels posted a 7-5 record in the ACC, but were otherwise hampered by minor injuries leading to a few unexpected losses. One low point for the Tar Heels was a loss to Pittsburgh, who finished 2-14 in the ACC.
Still, a No. 9 seed is nothing to sneeze at. North Carolina has more than a puncher's chance at making noise in the tournament. With a win against the Golden Bears, North Carolina would face the winner of No. 1 seed Baylor and No. 16 seed Abilene Christian.
The battle of the boards against California will be something to watch for. The Tar Heels rank 241st of 351 Division I teams in rebounding rate, and will have to reckon with senior forward Kristine Anigwe, who averages 22.9 points per game and leads in rebounds at 16.3 per game. Anigwe is also the only player in college basketball, men's or women's, to record a double-double in every game this season.
If North Carolina can find a way past the Golden Bears, the team will, in all likelihood, have its shot at Baylor, a team that has posted a 31-1 record this season.