Throughout the North Carolina women’s basketball team's 2020-2021 season, there has been one thing consistently weighing on head coach Courtney Banghart's mind: a lack of experience in her young roster.
In Sunday's 77-74 overtime win against Wake Forest, though, the Tar Heels avenged a 10-day-old loss to the Demon Deacons and showed continued improvement for a roster with four first-years who've seen major minutes.
Although it wasn’t always smooth sailing, Banghart said North Carolina gained valuable experience in its first trip to overtime this year.
“The more we can play, the better for this team,” Banghart said. “We got five extra minutes and we’re grateful for that.”
The previous matchup between these two teams was UNC's first loss of the season, and it came by just three points.
Entering Sunday's head-to-head, Banghart said the Tar Heels were looking to reverse the roles and come away with a victory by cutting down on mistakes and focusing on the little details.
“With a young team, we know we’re in a league with a lot of experienced players, and we know we’re not one of them,” Banghart said. “And we’ve got to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes twice.”
While shooting from behind the arc remained a weak point for the Tar Heels, one of the most obvious areas of improvement was in UNC's visits to the foul line. Previously, the Demon Deacons limited UNC to just 9 free throw attempts, compared to 31 this time around, which the Tar Heels turned into 22 points.
First-year Kennedy Todd-Williams converted under pressure, sinking a free throw at the end of regulation to tie the game at 68 and put it into overtime.
“It comes down to who makes plays at the end, and we made plays this time and we didn’t last time,” Banghart said.
In the midst of UNC's underclassmen stood senior center Janelle Bailey, who played 41 minutes and led the team in both scoring and rebounds at 19 and 12, respectively.
Graduate transfer Petra Holešínská joined Bailey as a veteran who put together an impressive performance, notching 14 points of her own, including two well-timed free throws to elevate UNC to a five-point lead late in overtime.
Bailey said the Tar Heels' improvements at the free throw line were key to pushing them over the top.
“Those huddles at the free throw line are one of the most important things in a basketball game because that’s when we get to talk to each other,” Bailey said.
Despite trailing by as many as 17 points in the first half, North Carolina remained levelheaded, relying on practiced skills rather than the desperate maneuvers of an inexperienced group to push it to victory.
“I knew we had to be the tougher team today,” Bailey said. “I’m just proud of the team for finding a way. We know that some of these games are just going to be tough, things might not go our way throughout the game.”
Entering the game, UNC led the ACC in defensive rebounding, and it showed against the Demon Deacons. The Tar Heels grabbed 46 total rebounds compared to Wake Forest’s 31, leading to 20 second-chance points.
The aggression off the glass was largely due to a number of first-year guards, as Alyssa Ustby ripped six rebounds (along with her 15 points), Todd-Williams pulled down 10 and Anya Poole hauled in six.
Overall, this young group of Tar Heels had clearly learned a thing or two since their previous meeting with the Demon Deacons. Improvements in offense and defense indicated quick progression for North Carolina's underclassmen-heavy squad.
“I thought our team played really well, we faced a little adversity. One thing we did today is we didn’t quit on each other, and that’s what got us that win,” Ustby said.
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