The North Carolina women’s basketball team led for over 33 minutes of game time in its 81-75 win over UNC-Charlotte on Sunday, but not once during the matchup did the Tar Heels' lead ever feel comfortable.
A winless, but deceptively good, 49ers team brought the fight to UNC, keeping pace with the Tar Heels’ high scoring offense and taking the lead twice in the final four minutes before succumbing to free throws.
After blowing out their first four opponents with an average scoring margin of 46.3 points, UNC-Charlotte proved to be North Carolina's first real test of the season before the Tar Heels transition to ACC play against Wake Forest on Thursday. Three days ago, the 49ers played Wake Forest to just a three-point loss, proving just how formidable they could be against ACC caliber teams.
UNC head coach Courtney Banghart was not at all surprised by how close the game was. Turns out it was exactly the type of game she was looking for.
“We knew that was a great team. My young team needed that,” she said. “They needed to play against a senior-led, experienced, winning, good, balanced team, and it was that.”
The Tar Heels' youthfulness was something that coach and player alike mentioned after the game. Sunday was the first time that the team’s five first-years experienced a close, hard-fought college basketball game.
“We have a really young team, very talented but young,” graduate guard Stephanie Watts said. “This is their first time against this level of competition, so I think it’s just important to lead and let them follow that.”
Petra Holešínská, the second of UNC’s two graduate players, echoed that this game was a learning experience for the first years.
“I would say probably just play hard for 40 minutes,” she said. “Obviously, you guys know that you can’t take a break in the ACC, and I feel like that’s one thing we can take away.”
When it came down to the final minutes, it was the experience of Watts and Holešínská that took over the game. Watts led the team in scoring with 17 points, and Holešínská was tied for second with 13 points. Both of the vets made key free throws down the stretch to seal the game.
“That’s 11 years of college basketball between the two of us,” Holešínská said. “So you know at that time you have to take the ball and make a play. That’s what’s expected of us.”
In terms of learning to play together and building chemistry, the team is still very much a work in progress for Banghart, who herself is a relative newcomer to the team in just her second season as head coach in Chapel Hill.
It might not seem that way on the surface, though, based on the five-game winning streak that the Tar Heels have started off their season with. After a somewhat disappointing 7-11 record in the ACC last season, this team’s mix of young talent and experienced veterans has the potential to make a splash in conference play.
“We have one through 12,” Watts said. “We’re really deep, so I think depending on what a team throws at us, we have something for it.”
It’s that depth that the team is going to look to when the Tar Heels find themselves in situations like they did today having to close out hard-fought wins against tough opponents.
“I feel like when people are scouting they don’t really know who to guard,” Holešínská said. “Obviously we have Janelle (Bailey), Anya (Poole), Malu (Tshitenge) in the post, then you have talented guards with Deja (Kelly), Kennedy Todd-(Williams), Alyssa (Ustby), obviously Steph, so I feel like that’s definitely going to be our advantage in the ACC.”
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