In April 2019, head coach Courtney Banghart came to a North Carolina women’s basketball program in a state of flux.
Following long-time head coach Sylvia Hatchell's resignation and many experienced players transferring, an identity built over three decades vanished almost overnight. What was left was a young team unsure of its next step.
Fast forward to Feb. 28, 2021. On Sunday, Banghart’s group came back from 14 down to win 68-63 over Virginia Tech in the final game of the regular season, a result that all but secures an NCAA Tournament berth for the Tar Heels.
A team that struggled to maintain consistency for long stretches this year answered the call convincingly in February. And through a 5-1 run to end the season, the Tar Heels found their identity again.
“The growth of this team in terms of how they trust one another and how they’re able to sustain a change in tempo — we’re growing up at the right time,” Banghart said.
In the first half, UNC didn’t look like itself.
Virginia Tech stretched UNC’s defense with a diet of off-ball screens, ball movement and sharpshooting. The Hokies shot 50 percent from the field in the first half, and shot 7-17 from beyond the arch. The hot shooting limited the chances the Tar Heels got on the fast break, a staple of their offensive makeup. The Tar Heels got open shots, but they it couldn’t make them.
Faced with a 14-point deficit at the half, UNC refused to fold. Instead, they dug in. The second half saw a more proactive defense that wouldn’t allow an open shot and an offense that kept its cool and cashed in on opportunities. All of a sudden, UNC flipped the game on its head and would never let go after taking the lead early in the fourth quarter.
For the second straight game, first-year Deja Kelly matched her career-high 22 points. Sunday saw a version of Kelly unafraid of driving to the rim, taking tough mid-range pull-ups or pulling up from deep.