With a team composed of five first-years and only two players that had NCAA Tournament experience, the 10-seeded North Carolina women’s basketball team started its opening-round clash with seven-seeded Alabama poorly on Monday.
Imposing its preferred style of play was difficult for this young UNC team. The Tar Heels tried to match Alabama's fast pace with a fast pace of their own, but early on, they couldn't.
Still, as the game went on, the Tar Heels found their rhythm. They played patiently. The ball moved more. Players moved more. They got good shots, even if they didn’t always make them. And, eventually, UNC got better.
Sound familiar? It did to graduate guard Stephanie Watts. But she also knew it wasn’t enough, as the team fell, 80-71.
“I think (the game) speaks to what our team did this year,” Watts said. “As the season continued to get deeper and we played more and more games, we got better as it went on.”
In the NCAA Tournament, getting better isn’t enough. Watts acknowledged that UNC couldn’t find its footing on time to alter the final score. And while the offense improved as the game went on, the defense could never answer the question: How do we stop Jordan Lewis from putting up a career-high of 32 points?
“They really affected us by getting in the paint with the dribble (drive),” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “We’re not elite at guarding the ball yet, athletically. We don’t always have the speed or the length we need to do that well.”
Defense — which at times went overlooked this season — will be a point of focus for the team getting better this offseason, first-year guard Alyssa Ustby said, but that won’t be the hard part. Especially for a versatile defender like her.
The hard part will be bouncing back from a 3-11 shooting night and becoming a leader for a team set to become even younger next season.
For that challenge, Ustby is ready.
“I learned a lot from Janelle Bailey, Watts and Petra Holešínská,” Ustby said. “So I think I’ll be in a great position to be a strong, vocal leader all around the court.”
Ustby didn’t need to think too far back to what she had learned from her senior teammates. Although she struggled on Monday, missing open layups and threes, her teammates wouldn’t let her lose confidence.
“At halftime, running back to the locker room with Bailey, she puts her arm around and says, ‘You got it,’” Ustby said. “And with Petra, one of the threes I missed, she came up to me and said, ‘Hey, that was a great shot. Shoot it again.’ The next time I shot it, I made it. Those little moments are what all players need.”
Throughout the season, Banghart was encouraged by her young players’ willingness to follow the lead of the veterans.
“They’ve been spoken to directly,” Banghart said. “They’ve been treated with truth. They’ve been pushed. They’ve had to grow. They’ve had to show courage, because they’ve had to grow in front of everyone’s eyes, and that’s not easy to do.”
First-year Deja Kelly is the symbol of how quickly the team’s young players had to grow up. As a five-star recruit heralded for her talent since middle school, Kelly struggled to adjust to the college game for much of her first season. Even on Monday, she shot 1-13 from the field.
Banghart was sure to note how, even with the arrival of three McDonald's All-American recruits from the class of 2021 in Destiny Adams, Kayla McPherson and Teonni Key, an NCAA Tournament bid is no guarantee.
Kelly knows a world of no guarantees too well. The lesson she’ll be teaching her young teammates next season? Keep pushing.
“We had a rough start,” Kelly said. “I think it was January where we only won one game, but we just never laid down, because our goal was still the NCAA Tournament, and that’s gonna be the same (goal) for next year.”
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