The good, the bad and the ugly. For the North Carolina women’s basketball team, there was a little bit of each sprinkled into its 2020-21 season.
In the preseason, UNC looked to be putting itself into a good position, signing the No. 11 recruiting class in the country, highlighted by five-star guard Deja Kelly. In addition to this, the Tar Heels brought in two graduate transfers: guard Petra Holešínská from the University of Illinois and guard Stephanie Watts, transferring back to UNC after one year at Southern California.
This strong offseason would be evidenced in UNC’s first five games, which the team won by an average of 38.2 points. The last of this five-game win streak was a six-point win against Charlotte, during which senior center Janelle Bailey got into foul trouble early in the game and Kelly had eight turnovers on 3-11 shooting from the field.
These trends would come to haunt the Tar Heels in their next game against Wake Forest, as Kelly again shot below 20 percent. On top of that, both Bailey and Holešínská registered four fouls, hampering the Tar Heels as they went on to lose a close game, 57-54.
The next game against Miami would be much of the same — only this time, the shooting problems were spread across the starting lineup. Only one player of the five would shoot higher than 25 percent from the field, and UNC shot a pitiful 10-22 from the free throw line. These two issues combined sealed the Tar Heels' fate, as they went on to lose by four.
Seeing a trend yet?
Some nights, a player shooting 0-6 from the field might not matter, like in UNC’s 24-point win over Syracuse. Other nights, it had an impact, like in a three-point overtime win against Wake Forest, where only two of the seven players to record a shot finished over 40 percent shooting. Simply put, the talent of this UNC team could overshadow bad shooting nights and come out with the win, but sometimes, the slumps were just too much to overcome.
Just after the overtime win against Wake Forest, for the second straight year after starting the season strong, the wheels began to fall off. In a 26-day span, UNC would go 1-6, while also having two games canceled against Duke and Virginia. Its sole win in this span was a five-point victory against Notre Dame.
UNC was destined to make the Big Dance, though, and for the third straight year, the Tar Heels beat a top-10 N.C. State team, changing their fortunes almost immediately. After the N.C. State game, UNC went on to win four of its last five games, with its only loss coming against that same Wolfpack team.
The Tar Heels ended the regular season with a 13-9 record, earning the No. 12 seed in the ACC Tournament. Their first-round opponent? A Wake Forest team with which they had traded wins during the season. UNC’s first-year starters, Kelly and Alyssa Ustby, had strong performances, but a high-scoring performance from a trio of Wake Forest players ended UNC’s ACC Tournament run before it could even begin.
The 13-10 overall mark put up by the Tar Heels, though, was good enough to receive the ninth seed for the NCAA Tournament, where they would face Alabama in the first round. Bailey and Watts would have stellar games, playing as they might never touch a basketball again. Watts tallied 29 points, and Bailey was a rebound shy of a double-double. However, nervous shooting from Kelly and Ustby slowed the Tar Heels down. Ultimately, Alabama’s pinpoint shooting from beyond the arc would be the final blow to UNC’s season.
UNC had its fair share of bad and ugly, but there was also a lot of good: a top-15 recruiting class, significant playing experience for their underclassmen, beating a top-10 ACC foe, an NCAA tournament appearance and, if the Tar Heels play their cards right, a bright future ahead.