Courtney Banghart was dealt a difficult task last season after being hired to replace Sylvia Hatchell, who reached over 1,000 victories and won the 1994 national championship with UNC before resigning as the head coach of the North Carolina women’s basketball team in 2019.
After amassing a 16-14 record, Banghart's first season in Chapel Hill was filled with with plenty of highs and lows.
In the early stages of the season, the Tar Heels jumped out to a 16-6 record, blazing out to a 7-4 split in the ACC and handing a top-10 N.C. State squad its first loss of the season. As the season wore on, the team began to falter, and an 0-8 ending to the season finished in a loss to Wake Forest in the ACC Tournament that all but eliminated any postseason hopes.
Despite the late-season slide, Banghart established a new foundation for the program to build on. Here is a look at how the team can carry over its early-season success and move forward into 2021.
An immediate challenge UNC will face is filling in the gaps of impact players who have graduated. The Tar Heels will lose three starters from a season ago, Madinah Muhammad, Taylor Koenen and Shayla Bennett, who all averaged double figures in scoring last season.
Banghart has wasted little time making noise on the recruiting trail, which should help the Tar Heels replace their graduating talent.
The incoming recruiting class is led by Deja Kelly, a five-star guard who is ranked 10th in ESPN’s recruiting rankings. Her ESPN profile described her as a “poised combo-guard (who) brings consistent production off the dribble in mid-range game” and was “already an elite guard yet continued to raise during the season.”
Along with Kelly, the class also features two more players in the ESPN top-100: Anya Poole and Alexandra Zelaya. Poole, a five-star forward from Southeast Raleigh High School, ranks No. 49 in her class according to ESPN. Zelaya, a four-star forward from Arizona, ranks No. 98. In Poole’s ESPN profile, she is described as an “athletic-4 (who) competes on the glass, rebounds and initiates the fast break.” Zelaya’s offensive arsenal appears to be more perimeter-oriented, as ESPN described her as an “agile faceup-4 performer (who) stretches the defense to the arc.”
All three of their respective play styles seem to complement each other due to their diverse skill sets, so Banghart should be able to effectively place them in a revamped rotation.
In addition to the top-100 trio, the incoming class also includes Kennedy Todd-Williams and Alyssa Ustby, two three-star perimeter prospects.
After rounding up the recruiting class, the last move Banghart and the coaching staff made to the roster was adding graduate transfer Petra Holešínská, a 5-foot-10 guard originally from the Czech Republic, who played her previous three seasons at the University of Illinois. Last season, Holešínská was a consistent starter for the Fighting Illini and averaged a team-high 12.6 points per game, including knocking down 41 percent of her shots from behind the arc. Her experience likely makes her an immediate lock to start for and contribute to the Tar Heels as soon as she steps on campus.
While the recruiting class will help bolster the depth of the team, the returning players will play a key role in creating team success next season.
Although three of next year's starters will likely be new faces, the original front court will remain intact with Janelle Bailey and Malu Tshitenge holding it down in the middle. Bailey started every game she played for the Tar Heels, averaging 14.5 points and 9.3 rebounds, which earned her a spot on the All-ACC first team. Tshitenge, who carries an impressive basketball lineage as the niece of Basketball Hall-of-Famer Dikembe Mutombo, started every game last season, averaging 10.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game as a first-year.
Other pieces such as Kennady Tucker and Leah Church saw an increase in minutes as the season went on, so their experience in Banghart’s system will be invaluable for the team moving forward. Ariel Young, a transfer guard from Michigan, began practicing with the team in January and will carry a familiarity with the program next season despite it being her first official campaign in a UNC uniform.
At her previous coaching stop at Princeton, Banghart took the Tigers to eight NCAA Tournament appearances despite the program never making the big dance before Banghart's tenure.
Now, at a North Carolina program that already holds a national reputation, she is setting the stage to elevate the Tar Heels to new heights.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.