Unlike the men’s game, there’s a sizable gap between the end of conference tournaments and the beginning of the NCAA Tournament in women’s basketball. North Carolina is hoping it can use the break to get its top players back out on the court together.
The Tar Heels are expected to be named in the field of 64 for the first time in four years when the bracket is unveiled on Monday. Should that happen, the earliest UNC could play its first tournament game is March 22, a full two weeks after its 95-77 loss to Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals on March 8.
“This is our time to heal up and get ready to come back, and have a few good practices and go play,” head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “But that is one of the things that I addressed in the locker room, because we're a little bit banged up.”
Right now, the main injury concern for Hatchell is redshirt junior guard Stephanie Watts. After missing the entirety of the 2017-18 season with a knee injury, Watts has shined in her return for the Tar Heels, ranking third on the team at 15.2 points per game while nagging opponents with her defense.
But Watts has missed five straight games since hyperextending her knee against Virginia on Feb. 17. Since then, UNC is 2-3 after going 7-6 in conference games with Watts in the lineup. Whether or not Watts will be able to play in the NCAA Tournament is the biggest question for the Tar Heels.
During the ACC Tournament, UNC listed her status as day-to-day.
“Having (Watts) back would really, really help us out,” Hatchell said after the loss to Notre Dame. “So we're hoping that she'll be able to play.”
Getting back to full strength will be crucial for UNC, a team that has knocked off some of the nation’s top teams with victories over then-No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 7 N.C. State. But the Tar Heels have also shown how small their margin for error is with unexpected losses to the likes of Pittsburgh and Duke (twice), teams that finished near the bottom of the ACC standings.
A dangerous 3-point shooter, Watts can hit from deep in catch-and-shoot situations or off the dribble. Earlier this season, Duke head coach Joanne McCallie said Watts has “WNBA range.” She's shooting 37.3 percent from 3-point range, second only to sophomore Leah Church (37.6 percent) for UNC.
But UNC has arguably missed Watts’ defense as much as her offense. At 5-foot-11, she has good height for a shooting guard, and while the 6-foot-4 Janelle Bailey serves as UNC’s rim protector, it’s actually Watts who leads the team in blocks with 27. Her 51 steals are also the second-most on the team.
“Of course she's a great 3-point shooter and driving to the basket, but her defense had really, really come around, and she was really helping us tremendously,” Hatchell said.
UNC's record in Watts’ recent absence is the latest example of how much the Tar Heels rely on her, Bailey and redshirt senior guard Paris Kea. Collectively, the trio accounts for 49 of UNC’s 75 points per game, 43.6 percent of the team’s rebounds and 45.9 percent of assists. Only five times in 32 games this season has someone other than Watts, Bailey or Kea led UNC in scoring.
Take just one of those three players out of the equation and UNC is a drastically different team, evident when Kea missed time in December with a foot injury and couldn’t play in an 85-69 home loss to Duke in February because of an illness. The same could be said when Bailey was suspended for UNC’s ACC Tournament opener against Georgia Tech – a game the Tar Heels won thanks to stellar but unforeseen performances from Church and redshirt sophomore guard Jocelyn Jones, UNC’s most-used reserves from a short bench.
When Watts, Kea and Bailey all saw the court together, UNC went 7-5 against ACC opponents. In those games, the Tar Heels had an offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) of 104.3 and a defensive efficiency of 99.6. However, UNC went 2-4 in ACC games without at least one of those three players, with its offensive efficiency regressing to 97.5 and defensive efficiency to 106, a 13.2-point swing in net efficiency.
“Lets face it, Paris not being out there was huge,” said Hatchell after UNC’s first of two losses to Duke.
A few weeks later, Hatchell said having Watts “would have really helped a lot” after a 74-69 home loss to N.C. State.
To some, those comments could sound like excuses, but there does seem to be some truth behind them.
Taking away Kea means taking away UNC’s best playmaker. When Bailey is out, UNC lacks a viable post presence, both offensively and defensively. And going without Watts means the Tar Heels are without perhaps their most valuable two-way player.
In games where one of the three is out – or two, as was the case against Georgia Tech in Greensboro – opponents can key in on the others.
“I maybe only been face guarded once or twice throughout the whole season,” Kea said after it happened against Georgia Tech.
Perhaps the ACC Tournament was a turning point for UNC. Church and Jones – the only two bench players to score in double-digits this season – combined for 34 points against Georgia Tech. A day later, UNC’s offensive showing against Notre Dame (111.2 offensive efficiency) was its best without Watts.
“I think they're going to be a really tough out,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said in Greensboro about UNC. “I wouldn't like to see them again.”
McGraw, on a Sunday afternoon loss to the Tar Heels in late January, saw firsthand how dangerous UNC can be at full strength, with Kea taking on defenders one-on-one, Bailey controlling the paint and Watts draining threes.
The Tar Heels can only hope there will be an opportunity for more full-strength performances like that one in March.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.