With only five returning players on the roster, the UNC women’s basketball program has experienced a complete turnover in talent and is hoping for a successful 2020-2021 season.
The incoming recruits, part of head coach Courtney Banghart’s first UNC signing class, are the No. 11 class in the nation and the team is predicted to finish fourth in the ACC, according to the preseason vote from the league's head coaches. The Tar Heels have been hard at work since July, training hard to build cohesiveness before the season opener against Radford on Nov. 25.
“We have spent a lot of time together already, and it’s helped our chemistry,” Banghart said. “Last year’s team was one of my most challenging, but this year’s might be my favorite.”
Last year’s team had an overall record of 16-14, winning only two away games and losing its final eight games.
Following her first year coaching for the Tar Heels, Banghart knew the roster needed a reset and recruited five first-years and two graduate transfers for this season. Come summer, an entirely different team stepped foot in Carmichael Arena, practicing for better depth and accountability throughout the year.
The team has been trying to live in a bubble in Chapel Hill these past four months because of COVID-19 regulations. They have since grown closer than ever, as attending class and practice are their only two priorities.
“I think COVID has been good for us, especially for being a young team,” senior center Janelle Bailey said. “It’s allowed us more time to be in the gym. It’s one of the two places we can go: home and the gym. I feel like we have pushed each other a lot on both ends.”
Bailey was recently named to both the preseason All-ACC team and the Lisa Leslie Award watch list for the second consecutive year. As one of the most seasoned UNC players on the team, she is taking on the leadership role of showing the new players what it means to play in the conference.
She added that the team has done a great job in getting into the gym, asking questions and doing their job off the court to stay healthy during the preseason.
Sophomore forward Malu Tshitenge is in a similar leadership position, despite this season being only her second year on the team.
“I am a veteran in a way, but I am still willing and eager to learn,” Tshitenge said. “I’m more eager than last year because I not only know what to expect, but I also know my potential."
The Tar Heels’ highly anticipated 2020-2021 schedule was released on Nov. 11 with a total lineup of 25 games. They will face five nonconference teams at home first, then transition to playing the 20-game ACC schedule until the end of February.
“In the long run, the newcomers can look back on this and appreciate it because they’re getting more used to ACC basketball,” Bailey said. “Five out-of-conference games is not ideal, but it’ll help us get into the swing of things.”
Playing in these games requires the team to stay healthy in its attempt at an isolation bubble. So far, Banghart said the players are living in either their pajamas or their basketball uniforms.
“We’re not pretending this is college,” Banghart said. “Next year, I’ll have nine freshmen because that’s nine people that will have to navigate getting dressed, going to class, finding the student center and negotiating personal relationships.”
But staying in this bubble has helped the team form close-knit relationships in a short amount of time, creating a synergy that should show on Nov. 25.
“It feels like we’ve known each other for years, and we’ve only known each other for a couple months,” Tshitenge said.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.