For the North Carolina women’s basketball team, there was one big question coming into this season: could the Tar Heels rebound from last year to put it all together and make the NCAA Tournament?
It's easy to see the wealth of talent on the squad, but with five first-years and two graduate transfer additions, could this new, young team get everything clicking in time?
And against Clemson, when a place in the tournament was on the line, the Tar Heels didn’t vanish — they delivered.
The suffocating defense. The top-tier rebounding. The frenetic fast breaks. The unselfish ball movement. Everything the Tar Heels knew they could do was on display in their 77-64 win over the Tigers on Thursday. That win, according to ESPN’s Bracketology, bumps them up into the Last Four In.
Clemson loves to run high-post play sets that pull the opponent’s bigs out of the paint and force them to defend quicker guards. In response, UNC used a small starting five of four guards — Deja Kelly, Stephanie Watts, Petra Holešínská, Alyssa Ustby — plus Janelle Bailey to keep up. But the plan wouldn’t have worked without preparation, focus and determination.
Take star senior Bailey, for example. Four points on 2-6 shooting from the field says nothing about her performance. As a center, she was the prime target for Clemson’s strategy, but she didn’t fold. Bailey hedged aggressively on the Tigers’ pick-and-roll, being in the right positions to suffocate drives. Her effort epitomized what the Tar Heels showed consistently throughout the game.
“Our big thing right now is coming out (with energy) in the first, something we’ve been struggling with, and coming out hard in the third,” Watts said. “We did both of those things.”
Watts repeatedly mentioned being locked into the defensive game plan. UNC was one step ahead on any play Clemson ran, and Watts was there to pounce on any ill-advised pass when the Tigers’ offense stalled. She also played a huge part in the Tar Heels' high-flying fast-break offense, scoring 26 points on 12-20 shooting — another solid performance in her resurgence throughout the second half of the season.
“Coming off my second knee surgery, getting back into playing full live games, I think I’m coming back into the player I can be,” Watts said.
Watts wasn’t the only player coming back to form. Given the expectations of a five-star recruit, Kelly hasn’t impressed in her first season until recently. She chipped in 19 points on 5-12 shooting, well above her average of nine points per game heading into Thursday's game.
“The biggest (challenge of transitioning) from high school to college was the pace of the game and the strength of everybody else,” Kelly said. “I’m just happy that I’ve been having fun. My teammates are amazing, so they’ve been really encouraging and trying to get me back to helping the team.”
Two of its best guards performing well is a boost, but how has UNC gone from an inconsistent young team to getting upset wins over the likes of No. 4 N.C. State, or strong performances against somewhat evenly matched foes like Clemson? For head coach Courtney Banghart, it's the team finally coming together.
“Our older guys are asserting their will more,” Banghart said. “So when you’re asking the younger guys to maintain a defensive game plan, they’re able to retain that better. They trust each other more.”
Above all, the Clemson game showed UNC not only playing at its best, but maintaining that energy throughout the entire game. The young, scrappy Tar Heels might finally be coming of age just ahead of the NCAA Tournament.
“When teams practice as hard as our guys do, good things happen,” Banghart said. "It’s nice to see them grow up and be able to do it when the lights are on.”