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Thursday September 23rd

Preview: How UNC women's basketball stacks up against Alabama, rest of NCAA Tournament field

<p>UNC graduate guard Stephanie Watts attempts a layup in Carolina's 81-71 second-round ACC tournament loss to Wake Forest University at Greensboro Coliseum on Mar. 4, 2021.</p>
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UNC graduate guard Stephanie Watts attempts a layup in Carolina's 81-71 second-round ACC tournament loss to Wake Forest University at Greensboro Coliseum on Mar. 4, 2021.

On Monday, the North Carolina women’s basketball team was offered an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, cementing their place in March Madness.

The Tar Heels were awarded a tenth-seed and will be facing off against seventh-seed Alabama in their first-round matchup. The game will be played in San Antonio, Texas, at noon on Monday.

UNC's path to making the Big Dance was not easy. After a season-long effort of trying to play themselves off the bubble, the Tar Heels seemed to be trending in the right direction before a disappointing first-round exit in the ACC Tournament.

Of the eight ACC teams in the NCAA Tournament, UNC is the lowest seeded. Among the 64-team field, the Tar Heels barely scraped into the tournament as one of the last four teams included.

Still, a 10-7 upset is not too uncommon in March Madness, so a win in the Alabama game could potentially open the doors for an unpredictable run.

Here are three factors that could determine UNC’s success in this year’s tournament:

The Alabama matchup and the rest of the Hemisfair Region

Much like UNC, Alabama started off its season hot. The Crimson Tide won eight straight games, but slowly came back down to earth and finished with a 16-9 record.

The frontcourt battle will be something to watch, as UNC's Janelle Bailey will match up with Alabama's Jasmine Walker. Bailey led the Tar Heels in scoring this season with 13.5 points per game, while Walker paced the Crimson Tide with 19.2 points and 9.6 rebounds. Walker has also been named a finalist for the Katrina McClain Award, given to the nation's top power forward. 

If UNC is able to move onto the second round in the Hemisfair Region, it is likely the team will face Maryland, arguably the best second-seed in the tournament. The Terrapins recently won the Big Ten Tournament and haven't lost since January. They lead the nation in points per game with 91.3, making them a tough draw for the Tar Heels. 

A lack of tournament experience

Oftentimes, it's experience that propels teams forward in March Madness, and that is something that this UNC team lacks.

Of the few players on UNC's roster that have NCAA Tournament experience, one of them, redshirt sophomore Ariel Young, played her tournament games for Michigan. Although head coach Courtney Banghart led Princeton to the tournament eight times, this will be her first March Madness with the Tar Heels. 

Due to this relative inexperience, first-year players like Deja Kelly, Alyssa Ustby and Kennedy Todd-Williams will be asked to play a bigger role. The improved play of the first-years was a big factor in UNC’s late-season success, and Kelly was the leader, as she averaged nearly 20 points in the team’s last four regular-season games.

Away-game woes

Another possible detriment to UNC making it far in the tournament has been the team's struggles away from Carmichael Arena. The difference has been vast for the Tar Heels, who boast a 10-3 record at home and a 3-7 record on the road and at neutral sites. Conversely, Alabama has a better winning percentage away from Tuscaloosa (.692) than at home (.583).

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, these measures may seem arbitrary, as fan attendance has been limited or barred altogether throughout the season. But in San Antonio, some fans will be allowed in the building, and in March, every little advantage counts.

@LucasThomae

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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