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.