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.
“The advice I’ve been getting over the past two months is to keep pushing through,” Kelly said. “Whatever is coming will come, and I think it’s starting to come.”
Kelly’s renewed confidence and consistency is emblematic of where the team was and is now: after struggling with consistency, the Tar Heels have now started to put it all together. Even in a season where UNC went on a run of six losses in seven games, Banghart kept belief.
“Nine new faces with limited non-conference (games) was really hard for our group,” Banghart said. “I just implored that they just keep trusting the process, and I’m seeing so much progress.”
Kelly credited senior center Janelle Bailey for making the necessary hustle plays to get the Tar Heels back into the game. Banghart said Sunday was one of Bailey’s best performances, even if the box score didn’t show it. Twelve points can’t capture stepping up aggressively to stop drives, pressuring post catches defensively and finding cutters from the high post.
“If it were the second game of ACC play, I don’t know if we would have come back from that and stayed together,” Bailey said. “But you could tell by the look on everyone’s faces, whether it was people on the bench or on the floor, that we were gonna get the job done.”
Even in a season with heavy lineup rotation and young players seeing big minutes, UNC has hit its stride at the right time. In any case, the past month has made Banghart confident of any team she puts out there.
“You’ll see some small ball, you’ll see some big ball, and, hopefully, you’ll see some team ball regardless,” Banghart said.
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