GREENSBORO, N.C. — “This group has learned that when you’re not good enough, it’s over."
That’s what head coach Courtney Banghart told reporters just three weeks ago when the UNC women’s basketball team was eliminated from the ACC Tournament in Greensboro.
But on Friday, when the Tar Heels played at the Greensboro Coliseum again, the team was, in fact, good enough. Anyone in that arena — whether they donned garnet or light blue — would tell you that.
It didn’t matter that the Gamecocks had been ranked No. 1 all season. It didn't matter that the team had been nearly unbeatable this season. Nor was it relevant that Banghart had never been to the Sweet 16, while South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley had produced deep tournament runs year after year.
Despite falling to South Carolina 69-61, the young and spry Tar Heels, led by sophomore guard Deja Kelly, challenged one of the country’s most elite and experienced teams. For 40 minutes, the No. 5 seed North Carolina was good enough.
“Deja Kelly did a great job just putting us back on our heels and scoring,” Staley said.
As the game progressed, Kelly shouldered more of the offense. But on the defensive end, a collective physical effort from UNC’s undersized lineup frustrated South Carolina star Aliyah Boston at times.
Early in the second half, the Gamecocks finally saw an opportunity to feed the 6-foot-5 forward on the inside. UNC’s zone defense had been denying post-entry passes, and Boston was eager for the rare opportunity to post up.
But as soon as the ball touched her fingertips, Boston was swarmed by three Tar Heels. Everywhere she turned, all she could see was light blue uniforms and outstretched hands to deny a pass to the perimeter.