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Monday December 6th

In her final season, UNC women's basketball's Taylor Koenen is writing her own legacy

<p>UNC senior guard Taylor Koenen (1) dribbles the ball upcourt during a game against NC State on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. UNC broke N.C. State's undefeated streak with a score of 66-60.</p>
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UNC senior guard Taylor Koenen (1) dribbles the ball upcourt during a game against NC State on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. UNC broke N.C. State's undefeated streak with a score of 66-60.

What will the legacy of Taylor Koenen be?

It's not something that can be properly captured in a thousand or so words. Not something that can be broken down into a three-minute highlight video showing off her step-back jumper and the ball she sends forth that barely seems to rotate into the air before it hits nothing but the net.

It's certainly not the many timely cuts, passes or rebounds she has made over 115 career games and 3,739 minutes (and counting) played for the North Carolina women's basketball team, none of which were flashy, all of which were vital to her team's success.

What will the legacy of Taylor Koenen be?

"Someone you can always rely on," says her best friend, housemate and teammate Liz Roberts, who knows Koenen better than many ever will.

"Someone who doesn't give up, who strives for greatness," says her "buddy" Malu Tshitenge, the youngest player in UNC's starting lineup and someone who has only just begun to know Koenen.

"The power of consistency," says her new coach Courtney Banghart, a woman who has also only just met Koenen in the grand scheme of things, but who has already bonded with the most experienced Tar Heel on the team, making her team captain and taking her under her wing.

Banghart continues:

"You don't have to be the loudest, you don't have to be the quietest, you don't have to be the best, you don't have to be the best athlete, you don't have to be the best shooter. All you have to be is consistent."

Koenen has been nothing if not consistent. She has appeared in every single possible game since she first stepped foot on campus back in 2016, arriving as a high school recruit from Minnesota, and has averaged 32.5 minutes per game for her career.

She has taken on a bigger role on offense every year, and has somehow gotten more efficient each time — Koenen is averaging career highs from the floor (44.9 percent) and from three (38.8 percent), despite taking more shots in each category.

Under her watch, and the watch of all the players and their new coach, the Tar Heels are 14-6, their best record through 20 games since 2014.

"It sounds like such a soft word, it's actually, I think, a really powerful one," Banghart says. "She's just remarkably consistent."

Let Koenen show you how: 

Set the pick, dive to the hoop, hand up. Jump for the pass. Land, fake, wait, shoot. Take the bump, make it. Turn, point to the passer, run back.

That could be any play from Koenen's career, but this particular time it happened with just under three minutes left in the first quarter of UNC’s rematch against N.C. State, one of just six games North Carolina has lost this season.

This is Taylor, and Taylor is consistent. She has made plays exactly like these for the past three and a half years of her career, and she will continue to do so for however many games she has left. She's captain this year, the most experienced UNC player on a team that is surging after several years in a lull.

She has much to share with her teammates, especially the younger ones who are only just now being forged by the fire that is playing in the ACC. She knows there will be tough days, because she has lived them herself. She likes being the one looked to, the person that someone can go to to talk about anything.

"I like having the feeling of being counted on, feeling accountable," Koenen said.

Rock in a storm

It helps to have a rock on the team when a storm comes through. It gives you something to hold on to. For North Carolina, that storm was the sudden departure of Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell, who resigned last spring amid an investigation into whether she used racist language with the team and pressured players to play injured.

On April 19, the legendary coach who the players thought they'd all be playing for this season was gone. Soon, three veterans players transferred out of the program. For about two weeks, the program was up in the air, until Banghart, hired away from Princeton University, was announced as the new coach at the end of April.

For Koenen, the choice to weather the storm was a simple one. If she transferred, she would have been the same situation, with a new coach, new teammates, a new system and mission to buy into.

She was already in the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School and she wasn't about to give that up. Plus, she had been reassured by her former AAU coach that Banghart ran the type of program she wanted to be a part of.

It is clear now, as it was back in April, that this player and this coach fit together. Banghart, the diligent overseer, and Koenen, the consummate performer. Neither is one to speak much about their own achievements, both preferring to focus on the collective.

"They talk about what's best for the team, they both always put the team first and that comes across every day," Roberts says.

On the court, Koenen's versatility has kept her on the court more than any other player this year. She moves seamlessly from position to position, changing roles from moment to moment, all while doing what she has always done.

Run the floor, fill the lane, get the pass, make the shot. Turn, point to the passer, run back.

'You need people that care about the group more than themselves'

There is pizza, a movie — or maybe a basketball game — on TV, and there are Tar Heels. It's here where Taylor Koenen's legacy will really be made: in her and Roberts' apartment, surrounded by teammates.

They were here in the spring, when the team kept itself together despite losing its coach, and they were here in the summer as everyone adjusted to a new coach, new system and new expectations.

"She really understands that to be a team, you have to have people who are willing to be teammates," Banghart said. "... To have a team mentality that's family oriented, you need people that care about the group more than themselves. She's someone who has shown she cares about the group more than herself."

The phrase "Carolina Family" has been used more than a few times at this institution. Whether that's real or not isn't for anyone not inside that apartment to say. But Koenen's working on it.

She knows it's her job just to be there for now. She's there for Tshitenge, who she was paired with on the team to be a mentor. Tshitenge is a fellow out-of-state business student who is trying to learn all she can from the senior about what it means to be a UNC player.

Koenen knows it's her job to always be there for everyone else too — for her team and the coaches. To be the voice between the two as captain, setting the tone for the team but also picking them up when they need it. To send that short text when someone had a bad workout. To give that young player a word of advice about what to do when they're in a slump. Whatever she's doing, it's worked. 

Captaining the team that turned the program around will always be part of Koenen's career. So will be the fact that she is just one of five players in school history to amass 1,000 points, 700 rebounds and 300 assists.

But what will the legacy of Taylor Koenen be? In her own words:

"When I do graduate and I do come back, I want the whole team to run up excited to see me."

@bg_keyes

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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