The end of the 2019-20 campaign was not one to remember for the North Carolina women's basketball team.
After starting the season at a perfect 8-0, the Tar Heels lost each of their last eight games. The poor end to the season saw UNC fail to advance past the first round of the ACC Tournament for the first time since the 2015-16 season.
UNC redshirt senior guard Madinah Muhammad (3) after shooting a basket during a game against N.C. State on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020 in Carmichael Arena. UNC won 66-60 before their eight-game losing streak. This year, the team is hoping to bounce back with the help of the new recruiting class.
In her first year at the helm, head coach Courtney Banghart's team's late struggles were partly due to a lack of depth, leading to injuries and fatigue.
“I had the same starting lineup all of last year," Banghart said. “By the last six games of the season, Malu (Tshitenge) and Janelle (Bailey) were both on minute restrictions.”
Tshitenge and Bailey were the team's starters in the post for much of last season. They were the team’s two best rebounders and two of the top-five scorers. Both Tshitenge and Bailey will be back for the 2020-21 season, and Tshitenge said she will come back stronger than before.
“Last year, I was scared of aggravating my injury, and it affected my game,” Tshitenge said.
In the offseason, Tshitenge had hip surgery to fix this long-term problem and said she now feels better than ever. Last season, Banghart said she didn’t grasp the impact of Tshitenge’s injury but is excited by the prospect of having the sophomore fully healthy.
“She is running a lot better, which is great," Banghart said. "She will look physically better this season because of the surgery.”
The Tar Heels will also rely on the play of Janelle Bailey, one of the bright spots from last year's team. After averaging 14.5 points and 9.3 rebounds last year, Bailey feels even more confident entering this season.
“I feel like I have improved every year and have added a lot of things to my game,” Bailey said.
Along with Tshitenge and Bailey returning for North Carolina, the Tar Heels will see seven new players added to the program and only five returning players. Although some teams would view this much turnover from season to season as a negative, UNC players and coaches alike are excited for the new challenge.
“It’s like a completely different team and I’m loving it,” Tshitenge said.
A big portion of this new team will be the five incoming first-years in this season's recruiting class. The most notable of these incoming recruits is guard Deja Kelly. Ranked as the No. 10 recruit in the country by ESPN, Kelly will be a key component to the Tar Heels' offense this season.
“She’s a good basketball player,” Banghart said. “She is a combo guard that will have her hands on the ball a lot this season. She’s a good decision maker, has a great handle and is a lethal scorer.”
Arriving with Kelly are a number of other highly ranked recruits. Fellow five-star recruit Anya Poole and four-star prospect Alexandra Zelaya will add to the talented group of post players on the roster.
With a lot of new faces in the locker room for the Tar Heels, fans can expect to see an entirely different North Carolina women’s basketball team than the group that finished last season with eight straight losses. The return of stars Bailey and Tshitenge, combined with first-year impact players like Kelly and transfers Petra Holešínská and Stephanie Watts, should have many UNC fans optimistic about the upcoming season.
“Last year’s team was one of my most challenging, and this year’s might be my favorite,” Banghart said.
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