CORRECTION: A previous version of the article incorrectly stated that UNC had not fallen by more than seven points this season, apart from a 14-point away loss to Florida State. The Tar Heels have actually not fallen by more than eight points. The article has been updated to reflect the change. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.
RALEIGH — In her first season at the helm, through the upset wins, the valiant efforts against conference juggernauts, the few slip-ups to inferior opponents, UNC head coach Courtney Banghart’s message to her team has been consistent.
“I’m in heels. I can’t do nothing for you,” she’ll often tell her squad.
As junior center Janelle Bailey stood at the edge of Kay Yow Court in N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum, about 30 minutes after the Tar Heels (14-6, 5-4 ACC) fell 76-68 to the No. 8 Wolfpack (19-1, 8-1 ACC) on Sunday night, she couldn’t disagree more.
“She does everything she can,” Bailey said. “... There’s just an impact on the game when you know that your coach is behind you. You feel different. It’s almost like you have another sixth man.”
This was on full display Sunday as Banghart roamed up and down the sidelines, giving referees an earful over what she felt were questionable calls and matching the same energy that got her bench a technical late in the first half. It’s why UNC was able to hand top-10 N.C. State it’s first loss in Chapel Hill earlier this month, barely come up short to No. 5 Louisville after a 16-point halftime deficit and put up a fight on the road against the Wolfpack.
And it’s why the Tar Heels have more than enough reason to be optimistic as they sit at the midway point of their ACC slate.
“We got through the tough part of the conference,” senior guard Taylor Koenen said, “and we’re sitting pretty good. We played those top-ranked teams pretty close …
“We’re hoping to win out. We don’t have anymore ranked teams on our schedule.”
Koenen’s words aren’t just player speak, though. With only one of UNC’s remaining nine regular-season games against a team with a better conference record than the Tar Heels, pulling off nine consecutive victories isn’t completely out of the question. And that right there should tell you all you need to know about Banghart’s impact in Year 1.
UNC has trailed at halftime in its last seven games, and though it’s only come back to win three times in that stretch, the team has shown promise. Aside from a 14-point road loss to No. 14 Florida State two weeks ago, the Tar Heels haven’t fallen by more than eight points this season.
“That’s the team I’ve got, a group of fighters,” Banghart said. “That’s what I expected, and that’s what I got.”
But veterans like Bailey will be the first to tell you that the team is further along than they or Banghart could’ve imagined when the head coach took over last April.
After missing the NCAA Tournament three of the last four years, it’s hard to imagine that expectations within the program were through the roof nine months ago. That’s changing, and it’s easy to see why.
On Sunday, Bailey — UNC’s leading scorer — and first-year forward Malu Tshitenge sat for large stretches while in foul trouble. The two starters combined for just 12 points.
The Tar Heels found a different way to put up points, though.
Senior guard Shayla Bennett nearly doubled her scoring average by pouring in a team-leading 24 points. Koenen also helped carry the offensive load with 21 points of her own.
It didn’t end in a victory, but UNC found a way to compete against one of the hottest teams in the conference despite less-than-ideal circumstances.
“Our team has just come such a long way,” Bailey said, an optimistic tone in her voice despite the loss.
They really have, and the main reason why? None other than that woman in the heels.
“And I think that’s something Coach Banghart can be proud of,” Bailey said.
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