Newcomers to the North Carolina women’s basketball team have helped carry the team to success this season. Despite losing 67-63 to Miami on Monday, the Tar Heels' young players have continued to stand out amid unusual circumstances.
After graduating five seniors in the 2019-2020 season, the team was left with one returning senior, center Janelle Bailey. With several open spots, five new first-years joined the team: Alexandra Zelaya, Alyssa Ustby, Kennedy Todd-Williams, Deja Kelly and Anya Poole.
With an unusual offseason and a shortened out-of-conference schedule, the first-years have been thrown into a whirlwind season already. After Louisville had to postpone the game against UNC due to COVID-19 contact tracing, and Duke postponed its game against Miami for the same reason, the Tar Heels and Hurricanes had a short 36-hour turnaround before tipoff on Monday.
“Our freshmen are so young and have had so little time to prepare," head coach Courtney Banghart said. "The young team is going to learn very quickly because they are getting a lot thrown at them.”
With canceled or postponed games due to COVID-19 being a near certainty going forward, the first-years have an opportunity to work on adapting and learning to play good basketball — even after a last-minute flight.
On Monday, Ustby was the standout newcomer for the Tar Heels. She set a new career-high in her short college career by scoring 17 points and tied her assists record with three.
Even with the long flight from Chapel Hill to Miami and the last-minute turnaround, Ustby said the Tar Heels entered with the same mentality attacking they would any other game.
“We’re here to play, so whoever our opponent is," Ustby said, "we are ready to get you."
Ustby said the two ACC games the team has played — although both have been losses for the Tar Heels – have been a huge opportunity for the younger players to learn and grow. She believes the team is just going to continue to get better under veteran leadership.
Joining Ustby in the list of impressive first-years was Kelly, who finished as the Tar Heels' second leading scorer with 16 points, and Poole, who finished second on the team with 10 rebounds.
Banghart introduced Ustby as “the leader of the young-guy train” and ended her thoughts saying that she felt the younger players have and will stand as all things right in the years to come.
Both Ustby and Banghart said the first-years have big shoes to step into and need to be ready to compete and adapt in the season to come.
With two games down in ACC play and North Carolina dropping to 0-2 in-conference, the Tar Heels' first-years will have to continue to adapt quickly if they have postseason aspirations. While the Tar Heels' game against the Hurricanes showed signs of improvement for the young team, these improvements will have to continue as UNC prepares to face the heart of its ACC schedule.
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