It’s been seven years since the North Carolina women’s basketball team finished the regular season ranked in the top 25.
In the 2014-15 season, UNC finished at No. 15 with a 24-8 record, earning the No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the ability to host two games.
Most of the players on head coach Courtney Banghart’s current roster at UNC were still in middle school back in 2015 — and Banghart was leading Princeton to an undefeated 30-0 season and had the Tigers ranked two spots ahead of the Tar Heels at No. 13. In that season’s NCAA Tournament, Banghart and Princeton would reach the second round before losing to the top-seeded Maryland Terrapins.
Now, with a 23-6 record, UNC is back in the top 25 at No. 18 and is in position to potentially host opening-round tournament matchups.
Being able to host games in Carmichael Arena for the first time in seven years would mean having a home-court advantage, something that would bring a sense of familiarity to a young North Carolina team.
“It’s great to be at home and shoot in your own gym that you know that you can make shots in,” sophomore guard Alyssa Ustby said. “There’s definitely a sense of comfort.”
ESPN’s latest prediction for the tournament has UNC slotted at a No. 6 seed, just outside the No. 4 seed it would need to host games.
As the leader of a team that has exceeded expectations all season, Banghart doesn't understand the ranking.
“We’ve lost to a total of four teams, all of them ranked opponents,” she said. “You look at NET — which is the evaluative tool the NCAA has chosen — we currently sit at six. We’ve never been out of six the entire season, so that puts us as one of the top-six statistically rated teams in the country.”
Then again, this UNC team has been underrated since ACC Media Day in October.
Members of the media picked North Carolina to finish seventh in the ACC. Five months later, that same UNC team ended up tied for third in a conference that’s slotted to have eight tournament teams, according to ESPN.
The Tar Heels flew under the radar for most of the season until they beat No. 3 Louisville in a narrow, one-point upset in mid-February. Most of their wins have been more decisive, as all but four have been by double digits.
“We enjoy the doubt because regardless of what anybody says, we’re just going to keep proving ourselves,” sophomore guard Deja Kelly said. “Hopefully people will hop on the UNC train, but if not, we’re just going to keep our heads down and keep doing what we do regardless of if people follow along or not.”
Whether there’s reason for the doubt, the fact remains that neither North Carolina nor Banghart has reached that second round since the 2015 NCAA Tournament.
Since that tournament, UNC has reached the Big Dance twice while Banghart has reached it four times, including the Tar Heels' first-round loss to Alabama last year.
In that game, then-first-year Kelly shot 1-13 from the field. As a result of both of her performance and the team’s result, she took some lessons from the experience and is aiming to bring them into this year’s tournament.
No matter what seed the Tar Heels get, they’ll need to play a full 40 minutes in order to do what Banghart and UNC haven’t been able to do since Ustby and Kelly were in seventh grade: reach the second round.
“The biggest thing going into this tournament is us sticking to our principles, us doing what we do and knowing that whoever we play is going to bring their best as well,” Kelly said. “As long as we stick to what we’ve been doing all season, I think that we’ll be fine and we’ll do pretty well.”
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