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Sunday December 5th

After offseason changes, UNC women’s basketball forms new bonds, finds new identity

<p>Women's basketball head coach Courtney Banghart speaks at the ACC Tipoff in Charlotte, NC, on Oct. 13.</p>
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Women's basketball head coach Courtney Banghart speaks at the ACC Tipoff in Charlotte, NC, on Oct. 13.

In her third year as head coach of the UNC women’s basketball team, Courtney Banghart finally has a team that’s hers — all hers.

From her new star-studded recruiting class that ESPN ranked No. 3 in the nation to two newly-arrived veteran transfer players, nobody is on this team that Banghart didn’t want there.

Even the lone holdover from before her arrival in Chapel Hill, redshirt senior forward Jaelynn Murray, is still on the team despite graduating this past May.

“I didn’t ask her to stay,” Banghart told reporters at the ACC Tipoff in Charlotte this past Wednesday. “I made her stay.”

Even if the team was truly Banghart’s now, what if there were cohesion issues? There were new faces on either side of the age spectrum, and the team lost two of last season's foremost locker room leaders in Janelle Bailey and Stephanie Watts to the WNBA.

But those same new faces have stepped into that gap, turning what could’ve been a disjointed team into one that, in their minds, is closer than ever.

“It’s just hard not to be happy walking into practice,” junior forward Malu Tshitenge said. “Everyone’s smiling, everyone’s happy, we’re excited to start a new day, to start practice and to just be with each other. We’re a family.”

One of the newest members of that family is graduate transfer point guard Carlie Littlefield, who arrived in Chapel Hill after playing three seasons at Princeton. The first two of those seasons were also Banghart’s last two years coaching the Tigers. Despite only being on the team for a couple of months, Littlefield was unanimously voted to be a team captain for the season, a testament to the role she’s found off the court.

She’s also found a role on the court too, slotting in as a true point guard alongside combo players like sophomore guard Deja Kelly. Kelly said she looked to Littlefield for both senior leadership and solid performances on both ends of the floor.

“I'm looking to play a true combo this year, which I think is beneficial for everyone because Carly has been great at that point spot as well,” Kelly said. “So, yeah, to just have that balance, and like I said, we have a lot of versatility on the team, so I think that's very beneficial for us.”

After undergoing hip surgery in 2020 and using last season to recover, Tshitenge looks to be one of the Tar Heels’ main post presences this season alongside the elder Murray. Despite Bailey’s departure, leaving the team without its foremost interior player, Banghart said she knows Tshitenge and company have what it takes to make their new roles work.

“We're not going to ask Malu to do the things that Janelle did and vice versa,” Banghart said. “So our system is going to be a little bit different. And it's a system that I'm very comfortable with because again, these are the people that I've put together.”

That new system is one that emphasizes speed and versatility, with every member of the team expected to be able to score from anywhere and defend any position. While players who have already played under Banghart are used to this expectation, the first-years may not have been. But to hear Tshitenge tell it, they’re learning fast.

“They're so eager, they're so hungry to learn, and it's just so exciting watching them in practice,” Tshitenge said. “They're just so open-minded. Not only do they listen to the coaching staff, but they listen to us veterans. They take in everything. Like, they want to learn, they want to grow, they want to get better.”

For a team that didn’t have a clear-cut identity after last season, they sure have one now. This is Banghart’s team, and more than anything else, she wants it to be a team that’s together — playing and winning for each other at all times.

“They play and they show adversity response, and they show a trust, and they show a compassion that competitiveness requires,” Banghart said. “I just like the way this team is built. I like what they offer on the court, and we've got a lot of pieces.”

@pjdaman12

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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