Senior Days are often bittersweet for North Carolina women’s basketball.
The Tar Heels haven’t won their final home game since the 2014-15 season. Over the last five years, that’s led to a predictable scene in postgame interviews: seniors reflecting on their careers, coaches singing those players’ virtues and both of them wishing they didn’t have to go out with a loss.
Taylor Koenen, Shayla Bennett and Madinah Muhammad definitely shared those sentiments Sunday after a 73-54 loss to Duke. As did head coach Courtney Banghart.
But there was something else in the air, too, after UNC’s regular-season finale: a sense of closure.
How so? Think of it this way. Last spring, on the heels of an NCAA Tournament appearance, longtime coach Sylvia Hatchell resigned after a law firm review concluded she used “racially insensitive remarks,” among other issues that led to an overall “breakdown of connectivity.”
Starters Stephanie Watts (Southern California) and Destinee Walker (Notre Dame) transferred, and Banghart, formerly of Princeton, came to Chapel Hill in late April facing a roster in flux. One of her first duties, days into her tenure, was to convince other Tar Heels in the transfer portal to stay.
“They had to trust a new coach, a new system, new expectations, new normal,” Banghart said. “They’ll always be my first senior class here at Carolina.”
Given the whirlwind of the last nine months or so, the players at the podium Sunday spoke of their 2019-20 season fondly. It had a sour ending: a seven-game losing streak that lasted the better part of a month and dropped UNC to 16-13 and 7-11 in conference entering this week’s ACC Tournament.
But it was still a season above .500 featuring a 9-1 start, an upset win over then-undefeated N.C. State in January and a 7-4 record through 11 ACC games. It was also, Muhammad said, a test of leadership.
As she sat next to Koenen and Bennett, she independently brought up the four other seniors honored — Liz Roberts, Olivia Smith, Naomi Van Nes and Emily Sullivan — in explaining that.
“It sucks that we had to go out like this,” Muhammad said, “but I can say all three of us and the rest of the seniors, they played their part.”
Koenen, who had a team-high 18 points, agreed: “I’m very thankful that Coach Banghart came along for my senior year, because I think that's definitely been one of my best.”
Given that North Carolina’s season isn’t yet over — the Tar Heels play Wake Forest in a first-round ACC Tournament game Wednesday — those quotes were interesting. As were the signs of finality all over Carmichael Arena on Sunday, including a video message from Banghart: “I can’t wait for next year.”
“It’s crazy to me I only have a week or so with them,” she added in her postgame news conference.
In all, it reflected a sense of pride. Players were disappointed with the 19-point loss to their rivals, yes, but they were more so upbeat in what they made of this season after the chaos leading up to it.
“I have more good memories here than bad,” Bennett said.
Banghart said she bonded with players because of that aforementioned chaos. They were, as she put it, “meeting in disruption.” And her first senior class — from starters Koenen, Bennett and Muhammad to reserve guard Roberts to the injured Sullivan, Smith and Van Nes — helped facilitate it.
“We just kind of got started,” Banghart said, “but they left a piece of themselves in me, and I'm really grateful for that.”
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