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Sunday June 26th

UNC women’s basketball knocking on NCAA tournament's door, but leap is yet to be made

Sophomore guard Alyssa Ustby (1) pulls up at the elbow at the game against Miami on Feb. 6, 2022 in Carmichael Arena. The Heels won 85-38.
Buy Photos Sophomore guard Alyssa Ustby (1) pulls up at the elbow at the game against Miami on Feb. 6, 2022 in Carmichael Arena. The Heels won 85-38.

At 19-5, an NCAA Tournament bid for the No. 23 North Carolina women’s basketball team is almost guaranteed at this point, but the Tar Heels have shown that they are more than capable of making a deep run in March.

UNC yet to be a victim of an upset, and the team has consistently beaten teams decisively, most recently shown in a 47-point pummeling of Miami last Sunday. 

On the other hand, the Tar Heels have played some of the best teams in the country with nail-biting results, only losing to Notre Dame by five and a second meeting with N.C. State by eight. All the while, the team dominated a ranked Duke team in a convincing 16-point victory.

Head coach Courtney Banghart’s squad is not just good, but can be a real threat in the NCAA Tournament. Their stellar, lockdown team defense will always keep them in games, and offensive weapons can light teams up from all over the court when efficient and able to move the ball well. 

The Tar Heels still have a leap or two to make to be considered a Final Four contender. Here are a few keys for UNC to focus on in the last month leading up to the big dance: 

Continue playing team defense

UNC’s tenacious defense has paid dividends all season, holding teams to just 54.2 points per game. 

Not only do the Tar Heels do a fantastic job of contesting shots, but they are eager to jump passing lanes and steal the ball, forcing almost 20 turnovers per game. In turn, the Tar Heels are able to get out in transition for fast break points to build early leads.

This was the case in the first half against the Wolfpack, holding one of the best teams in the nation to just 27 points.

With the defensive pressure up top from guards like sophomore Kennedy Todd-Williams to anchors down low in the paint like sophomore Alyssa Ustby, the Tar Heels move as one unit to limit opponents’ ability to pile up points.

UNC needs to continue playing at this caliber of defense in a close tournament game; a couple stops could be key to pull off a victory.

Emergence of Kennedy Todd-Williams

Speaking of Todd-Williams, the sophomore guard has established herself as a potent scorer for the Tar Heels. 

Not only has she scored in double figures in seven of her last nine contests, but she has done so efficiently, shooting above 50 percent each time she hit that mark.

Todd-Williams knows how to take the right shots, and her smooth jumper is lethal from both mid-range and beyond the arc. Furthermore, she has become more aggressive by looking to score and take the ball to the rack, showing her evolution as an offensive player.

Having Todd-Williams emerge as a third scorer next to sophomore guard Deja Kelly — who is averaging 15.9 points per game — and Ustby — 13.1 points per game — is huge for Banghart’s offense. She is already known as a great defender, but Todd-Williams’ offensive breakout could be just what the Tar Heels need to get over the hump of the top teams in the nation.

Veteran Guard Play

Experience is key when tournament play arrives. For a young UNC team that starts four sophomores, that will be no different as veteran guard play can make or break their run in March.

That points the arrow at graduate guard Carlie Littlefield and redshirt junior Eva Hodgson, both of whom have multiple years of experience under their belts.

Littlefield will be especially important. As the point guard she initiates the offense, and it is her job to dictate the pace of the game and find her teammates open to score. Hodgson is a 3-point savant who can provide a scoring spark and defensive intensity off the bench.

Most importantly, they know what those intense, end-of-game moments are like. When the lights get bright, they can use their experience to lead a young, flourishing North Carolina team in the NCAA Tournament.

Being optimistic is one thing, but this UNC squad has serious potential to pull off some upsets in March. With some big ACC matchups approaching as the season wanes, North Carolina has the opportunity to show what it is made of against top-tier competition.

@jdolgoff3

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com  

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