You can hear it in her voice.
Steady, consistent, unwavering in its certainty. Since Janelle Bailey came to Chapel Hill in 2017, the Tar Heels’ puzzle has been torn apart, its pieces removed, replaced and carefully set together again to paint a new picture. Through it all, she has remained at the center of the table, fitting perfectly wherever she’s needed.
She came to North Carolina as a McDonald’s All-American, expecting to play for a program led by Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell. Two years later, she was a member of a shallow rotation, regularly playing nearly every minute of the game for a young head coach named Courtney Banghart.
Her closest friend and one of the few familiar faces left in the program, Jaelynn Murray, was sidelined with a season-ending injury, and a red-hot start to her junior season ended in an eight-game losing streak. Yet with each win or loss, the same voice echoed through every post game press conference.
It’s the same voice she uses now, describing her preparation for a season with the dark cloud of COVID-19 looming over it.
As a high school first-year, Bailey joined a dynasty. Since Josh Springer took over the program in 2007, Providence Day in Charlotte has won 11 of 14 possible NCISAA State Championships. Four of those came with Bailey holding down the low post.
From her first day on campus, Springer said, Bailey made an impact. Not just for her prodigious on-court abilities (she averaged 22.9 points and 13.1 rebounds as a senior), but also because of her consistent leadership for an elite collection of talent.
“She’s extremely confident in everything she does,” Springer said. “I think it’s hard to find young ladies in the high school and college level who are willing to be vocal and to be vulnerable and put themselves out there to lead their team.”
Jaelynn Murray first met Bailey when the pair went on their official visit to UNC together. The two had competed before — both are Carolinians who often met in gyms across the region’s AAU circuit — but their competitive relationship quickly turned to friendship when they arrived in Chapel Hill.
Before coming to UNC, Bailey spent the summer abroad with Team USA. Murray had moved to campus earlier in the summer to begin team workouts, and when Bailey came back to Chapel Hill, Murray said she could hardly even find the gym.
“She kinda didn’t know where to go around here,” Murray said. “I gave her a tour of campus, like, showed her how to get here or there. Since that day, where we were just laughing and trying to find our way around together, we just connected and ever since then, we’ve been close.”
‘I look at Janelle as a sister’
Bailey’s career in Chapel Hill has been marked by constant change. On the court, her legacy has been set from the first time she wore North Carolina’s name across her chest. But from a macroscopic perspective, the UNC of now is nothing like the one from 2017.
Following Bailey’s sophomore season, Hatchell resigned over concerns raised by players and others within the program. A 33-year legacy came to an unusual end. Some players left the program. A couple of weeks later, Banghart was hired as UNC’s new head coach.
All in all, going into last year, Bailey, Murray and Taylor Koenen were the only major rotational players remaining from 2017.
“The players that were here at the time, we just stayed together and talked to each other during the transition,” Bailey said. “When coach Banghart got here, I really liked what she said to us about getting to know us as people, then that transitioned to on the court and made the relationship better, easier to coach all of us.”
For Malu Tshitenge, another gifted post player who committed to North Carolina months before Banghart’s hiring, Bailey’s welcoming nature was a key part of her decision to come to UNC.
After Murray went down with a season-ending ACL injury in a preseason exhibition, Tshitenge took on the role of a full-time starter for the Tar Heels. She said Bailey was crucial in making her feel comfortable with the team.
“She was like a mentor to me,” Tshitenge said. “I struggled a lot my freshman year. Mentally, I was really hard on myself. And she was there for me and made me think, ‘It’s OK to be hard on yourself, everybody struggles their freshman year, everybody struggles in general.’”
Murray — who had remained Bailey’s roommate since their first year on campus — was struggling as well. After being told her season was done, she redshirted without appearing in a single game. At the end of a practice a few days after the injury, Bailey came to her with a surprise: she was going to honor Murray by wearing her jersey No. 30.
“I look at Janelle as a sister, so I know she always has my back and vice versa,” Murray said. “Usually we’re on the court together, so now that I wasn’t there, she just wanted to have that feeling of me on the court. And it kinda made me feel special too.”
For Bailey, the decision was necessary.
“I had to find a way just to make sure she was still with me," Bailey said. "I just wanted to do something for her so that she knows we all care, I care.”
After starting last season 8-0, the reality of playing with a highly restricted rotation came crashing down on the Tar Heels. A loss to Duke on Feb. 6 signaled the beginning of the end. Their fatigue was clear — even in stalwart veterans like Bailey — and UNC ended its season on a losing streak, punctuated by a loss to Wake Forest in the first round of the ACC Tournament.
North Carolina almost certainly wouldn’t have been invited to go dancing, but as February turned to March, it became clear there would be no March Madness for anyone.
‘Someone who stuck it out’
Now, she waits.
Janelle Bailey calls in over Zoom to talk about a season shortened because of COVID-19.
She still practices with her team — she’s the ultimate leader now, with Koenen gone and a barrage of young talent coming to Chapel Hill. She still uses the same voice, calmly describing the team’s improvements, her approach to the game, her relationship with change.
It’s a season that some have said should be pushed back, or outright canceled. Games, almost certainly, will be rescheduled or wiped from the Tar Heels’ slate. Nothing is certain. But regardless, Bailey will remain at the center of the Tar Heels’ puzzle.
But how will she be remembered at the end of her UNC career? Janelle described how she wants to be remembered when it’s all said and done.
“Just as someone who stuck it out,” Bailey said. “There have been lots of ups and downs, even before I got here, I’m sure. Just in these four years of players leaving, coaches leaving — unfortunately, on both ends. I just want to be remembered as someone who stuck it out through good and bad. There were bad losses, there were great wins, and I just stayed the course.”
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