Halfway through its ACC schedule, North Carolina women’s basketball was a deceptive 5-4.
Sure, the team had sputtered a bit after entering league play 9-2. But its losses came at the hands of elite opponents — No. 5 Louisville, No. 8 N.C. State and No. 11 Florida State — and a hot-shooting Virginia Tech team on the road.
Case in point: even after their Jan. 26 loss to N.C. State, the Tar Heels weren’t too rattled.
Head coach Courtney Banghart, center Janelle Bailey and guard Taylor Koenen all spoke with a tangible confidence that night in Raleigh. They knew what their 14-6 team was capable of. And with an easier back half of conference play awaiting them, they were ready to show it.
A little over a month later, North Carolina had dropped seven games in a row and fallen to the No. 12 seed in the ACC Tournament. The Tar Heels went one and done in Greensboro, falling to Wake Forest, and returned to Chapel Hill 16-14 and squarely out of any postseason discussions.
Two weeks later, it’s worth asking: what went wrong?
Bailey's presence missed
Bailey, a 6-foot-4 center, has been a force for North Carolina since her debut three falls ago. Her junior season was shaping up to be her best yet.
On offense, she was averaging career highs in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage along with a steady 15 points per game. On defense, she was fouling less, staying in games longer and neutralizing opponents like N.C. State’s Elissa Cunane.
She even earned co-ACC Player of the Week honors for her efforts in UNC’s wins over Virginia and Clemson, when she averaged 23 points and 13 rebounds. North Carolina was 16-6 after those wins, with a top-four ACC Tournament seed well in sight.
But its best player hit a cold streak. Bailey averaged just 11 points over the next four games, all losses, and shot a combined 16-46.
Then, an undisclosed injury held her out of UNC’s last three regular-season games (again, all losses). Out of rhythm, she returned against Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament, sat out chunks of the game due to foul trouble and finished with four points and six rebounds.
Cold from deep
When it comes to 3-pointers, Banghart has a give-or-take mindset. If you’re not hitting them, you better be defending them.
Too often in its eight-game skid, UNC did neither.
It’s no coincidence that North Carolina’s four worst 3-point shooting games percentage-wise all came within its losing streak to end the season: 1-11 against Virginia Tech, 2-21 against Duke, 2-14 against Wake Forest and 4-22 against Syracuse.
In the same time frame, UNC didn’t defend the line well, either. Notre Dame, Duke and Wake Forest all shot 47 percent in wins over the Tar Heels. Those games, plus Boston College’s 44 percent shooting, made up four of North Carolina’s worst defensive games against 3-point shooting percentage-wise.
The Tar Heels, ironically, got hot and tied their season high with eight 3-pointers against Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament, but it wasn’t enough.
Where's the depth?
The silver lining of this season: the Tar Heels did it with a pretty barebones roster.
UNC’s stellar starting five of Bailey, Koenen, Shayla Bennett, Madinah Muhammad and Malu Tshitenge all averaged double figures. They also logged heavy minutes.
The difference between the least played starter (Tshitenge, 30.3 minutes per game) was still double the top reserve (Leah Church, 14.8). Per the team’s media guide, there were 17 instances of a player going the distance and never subbing out of a game.
Naturally, that tight rotation had its issues. When Bailey or Tshitenge got into foul trouble — an inevitable issue for any forward at any level — UNC was seriously undersized. At times, Banghart plugged in Koenen, a guard, at center.
And when Bailey missed three games, Tshitenge was North Carolina’s only available player taller than 6-foot-2. Forwards Jaelynn Murray, Emily Sullivan and Naomi Van Nes all sat out the season with injuries.
A lack of depth can be fixed, though, and Banghart has worked to do just that.
Her first recruiting class ranks 11th in the country, per ESPNW, and includes Deja Kelly, a five-star guard and McDonald’s All-America selection. Five-star Anya Poole and three-star Alexandra Zelaya, both forwards, will bring much-needed height.
Ariel Young, a Michigan transfer, will also be eligible to play. Add in returning starters Tshitenge and Bailey (if she doesn’t leave for the WNBA Draft) plus a slew of reserves, and North Carolina will be significantly deeper across the board for Banghart’s second season.