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Tuesday November 30th

Analysis: Looking ahead to three must-watch games for UNC women's basketball

<p>UNC players Janelle Bailey (30), Leah Church (20), and Taylor Koenen (1) celebrate UNC's win over N.C. State on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. UNC broke NC State's undefeated streak with a score of &nbsp;66-60.</p>
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UNC players Janelle Bailey (30), Leah Church (20), and Taylor Koenen (1) celebrate UNC's win over N.C. State on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. UNC broke NC State's undefeated streak with a score of  66-60.

There is plenty of reason to be excited for the North Carolina women's basketball team this year. 

The Tar Heels are bringing in a strong recruiting class, headlined by five-star guard Deja Kelly and five-star forward Anya Poole. 

UNC's biggest star from last year, senior center Janelle Bailey, was named to the preseason All-ACC team, and Kelly was named to the Newcomer Watch List — both by consensus. 

And it’s all being organized by head coach Courtney Banghart in just her second year in Chapel Hill. 

After a hot start to last year's season, the Tar Heels lost their last eight games of the campaign. This will force them to prove that last year's woes in conference play are a thing of the past in the team's upcoming run. 

With that in mind, let’s take a look at three of the UNC's biggest ACC games in the upcoming season:

At Louisville, Dec. 13

The Tar Heels’ second conference game also happens to come against their highest-ranked opponent of the season against the preseason ranked No. 5 Louisville Cardinals, one of the favorites to win the ACC. 

During last year’s match, despite UNC outscoring the Cardinals 38-29 in the second half, the Tar Heels didn't have enough head to overcome a dismal first quarter performance, dropping the game by a score of 74-67. 

This year, it will likely be just as hard for the Tar Heels to come out with a victory. Cardinal guard Dana Evans was recently named to the preseason All-American team, in addition to being named preseason ACC Player of the Year. Evans and forwards Elizabeth Balogun and Hailey van Lith were all named to the preseason watchlist for the top national awards in their positions. 

Needless to say, it will be a tough match. However, if Banghart’s team can give the Cardinals a run for their money and come out with either a close win or a tough loss, it could help to prove the mettle of this team. If UNC can scrap with the best the ACC has to offer, it bodes well for the rest of the season.

Vs. Duke, Jan. 17

The Jan. 17 rivalry matchup against the Blue Devils comes close to the middle of the season. By then, UNC should have a good sense of how capable they are against other ACC teams. That being said, games against Duke are always a must-win for the Tar Heels, so it will certainly be one to watch.

Last year, North Carolina lost both of its games against Duke, including a 73-54 loss to end the regular season. However, Duke is being led by new head coach Kara Lawson, and the team lost two players to the WNBA Draft, meaning the Blue Devils are only returning 37.7 percent of their scoring from last year. 

If there was ever a time for the Tar Heels to get revenge against their rivals, this is it.

Vs. N.C. State, Feb. 7

The Tar Heels lost seven games in a row to close out the regular season last year. This season, that seven-game stretch begins with a rivalry match against No. 8 N.C. State. UNC will play the N.C. State twice in its last seven games. 

The Tar Heels were able to hang with the Wolfpack last season, defeating them in Carmichael Arena during their first January matchup by a score of 66-60 before suffering a 76-68 loss in Raleigh later in the month. 

This year’s matchups look to be similarly tough, with two of the Wolfpack’s players being named to preseason All-ACC teams and two named to national positional award watchlists.

If the Tar Heels want to remain competitive for a potential NCAA Tournament bid, they cannot slump later in the season. Last season’s losing streak resulted in a twelfth-seed placement in the ACC Tournament and a first round exit at the hands of Wake Forest. 

These tough, late-season games are the ones UNC must win — even tightly — to prove their status as an ACC competitor.

@pjdaman12

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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