Talent isn’t the problem for the North Carolina women’s basketball team. Effort isn’t, either.
But the NCAA Tournament is notorious for rewarding experience over talent. And the opponent North Carolina will face in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday — Alabama — is loaded with experience.
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, have only one player that has played in the Big Dance with UNC: senior Janelle Bailey.
Despite the youth on the roster, head coach Courtney Banghart is happy with the leadership Bailey has shown, as well as how the team has invested in improving each day.
“When we won one game in the entire month of January, I kept telling you that I just like this team,” Banghart said. “They keep getting better, and they stay locked into their process.”
Prepping for Alabama
Banghart admitted the energy in practice dipped after an early exit from the ACC Tournament, but after UNC learned it would face seventh-seed Alabama in the NCAA Tournament, practices became more productive.
The Tar Heels are aware of the Crimson Tide’s pace-and-space offense and pack-the-paint defense but plan to counter these styles of play with ball and player movement.
“It’s important that all five people on the floor see themselves as a threat and believe they can score at any time," Bailey said. "We dictate what we want to do, we don’t let them dictate what we do on the offensive end.”
Still, UNC will lean on its first-years for a chance to kick off a Cinderella run. Former five-star recruit Deja Kelly has been valuable to the Tar Heels down the stretch, although her role has been the same all season. It was just a matter of getting comfortable within the team's system.
“Playing comfortable, playing like I know how, and not overthinking was my biggest thing," Kelly said. "I just needed to be comfortable and be someone coach Banghart could trust.”
Tournament life has a mental aspect to it, too, and for that challenge, Bailey is allowing her younger teammates to soak in the experience.
“Come game time, I’m gonna share what my experience was like and tell them that it’s 40 minutes,” Bailey said. “It’s not 28 minutes. It’s not 38 minutes. It’s not 18 or eight minutes. It means more to me because I want them to win so badly. I don’t want them to have the experience I had in the tournament and go out in the first round.”
Bigger than basketball
Like many other sporting events this year, the NCAA Tournament is being held under unique conditions. All games will be played in a "bubble" in San Antonio, Texas, where the teams will stay for the entirety of their tournament runs.
Earlier this week, players from across the country posted photos and videos that showcased the differences between men's and women's training facilities, where the women's facilities had noticeably fewer amenities.
When asked about this inequality, Banghart wasn't focused on the differences themselves, but addressed the broader changes that needed to be made.
“Our director of operations and our strength coaches are vital to our programs, so they should’ve had a voice about what was needed,” Banghart said. “But I think women’s basketball has arrived to the point where it’s not as much about what the men have but what we need.”
While the vast differences in the training facilities caught headlines, Banghart said this is only a small piece of the puzzle. For example, there has been a lack of on-site babysitters for those with small children at the tournament in previous years.
“Our needs are different in some cases, and in other cases, they’re exactly the same,” she said.
Despite believing the NCAA could have handled things better, Banghart applauded the financial commitment her team received from the UNC athletics department to keep the season from being derailed by COVID-19. She also added that there will be upgrades to team training facilities.
“We roll up to some of these ACC gyms, they all say, ‘Wow, two buses?’” Banghart said. “And we’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re not messing around. We haven’t gotten this virus, and we’re not starting now.’”
Although the support from the athletics department is a step in the right direction, Banghart said it will take some time to fully close the gap for women in collegiate athletics.
“As a woman head coach, this has to go well, because I want other women to be in this position when I’m not,” Banghart said. “That’s the life that we live as women, and I see it as a positive. It brings out your best every day.”