Back in 2017, Carlie Littlefield was a first-year at Princeton University playing women's basketball under then-Tigers head coach Courtney Banghart.
The young guard had all the tools Banghart looked for in a player — she was scrappy on the defensive end and possessed finesse offensively. But after two seasons, Banghart left and took the head coaching job at UNC.
The two were crushed as Banghart’s departure meant the opportunity to coach the rising star would come to an end. To make matters worse, COVID-19 caused Littlefield’s senior season to be canceled, leaving her collegiate career at a crossroads.
She entered the transfer portal, hoping one coach would allow her to exhaust her final year of eligibility as a graduate transfer.
That coach was none other than Banghart herself.
The pair reunited at North Carolina, where this year, Littlefield has been at the helm of the Tar Heels’ breakout season, which was capped off with a 74-46 win over Duke on Senior Day.
As the sounds of “Jump Around” drifted away, the Tobacco Road Rivalry tipped off with Littlefield asserting herself defensively with an early deflection.
“I like doing all the dirty work like taking charges and diving for loose balls,” Littlefield said.
Just over three minutes into the contest, doing the dirty work paid off.
Littlefield stole a loafing pass from the Blue Devils in the backcourt and zipped the ball to redshirt junior guard Eva Hodgson, whose uncontested layup extended the Tar Heel lead to eight.
Yet, a cold spurt allowed Duke to claw its way back into the game as UNC missed its first 11 three-point attempts.
Despite the Tar Heels' perimeter struggles, Banghart had faith in her team to push through.
“You can’t be 13-5 because you shot well,” Banghart said. “You have to have a lot of different things, you have to go.”
Some of those different looks came as a result of the Blue Devils’ zone defense. With the shot clock winding down in the second quarter, Littlefield found a cutting Alyssa Ustby for an and-one layup.
“I love getting my teammates involved and seeing them succeed,” Littlefield said. “I start there, and my points sometimes follow.”
One possession later, Littlefield’s scoring did just that as she completed the rare four-point play after being fouled on a 3-point make. Along with her offensive display, the Iowa native hauled in six rebounds in the first half.
Out of the break, the Tar Heels continued to dominate inside and opened up a 30-point lead heading into the final quarter.
To start the fourth, a new face subbed in — senior Jaelynn Murray.
Murray has had a roller-coaster of a career. The redshirt senior forward went from starting 29 games as a first-year to being sidelined for almost two seasons with a knee injury.
And on the first Tar Heel possession of the fourth quarter, an expiring shot clock forced Murray to shoot a long jumper from the corner.
The shot swished seamlessly through the net, bringing a near capacity Carmichael Arena crowd to its feet.
“It was such a joy to play,” Murray said. “I was so proud of myself, especially after all the things I’ve been through.”
As cheers rang out, Littlefield continued to crash the glass.
Her late rebound with just over four minutes remaining in the game was her tenth of the game, which, coupled with her 10 points, earned the team captain her first career double-double.
Following the game, the Tar Heels hosted their Senior Day festivities, which saw Banghart and Littlefield embrace potentially for the last time in Carmichael Arena.
“I love her like she’s my own,” Banghart said. “It's been a really hard week. I’ve cried more this week than I have ever cried.”
As for Littlefield, the end may, or may not, be near as an NCAA appeal could grant her one more season of eligibility.
Yet, no matter what the future holds, she’ll cherish her time with Banghart forever.
“I can’t put into words the impact she’s had on me,” Littlefield said. “She’s such a strong female leader and she’s done so much for me. I love coach Banghart.”
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