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.
With nowhere to go and bodies pressed up on her, Boston was soon called for a traveling violation.
Yes, Boston finished with a monumental double-double — 28 points and 22 rebounds. But the box score doesn’t show that 18 of those points came from second-chance opportunities — a testament to the Tar Heels simply being severely undersized on the boards, rather than lacking defensive energy or adequate preparation.
The box score doesn’t show that when Boston posted up four minutes into the game, graduate guard Carlie Littlefield stripped the ball and took it coast to coast for a fastbreak finish.
Or, the time when South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso caught the ball at the top of the key and was startled to see Kelly immediately trying to poke the ball out — and succeeding.
Or that Kelly, being one of the smallest players on the court at 5-foot-8, proceeded to scuffle with the towering 6-foot-7 center for possession and eventually forced an offensive foul from Cardoso.
“She’s just fearless,” Banghart said of Kelly.
But what the numbers do show is that UNC shot 46 percent from the field — significantly more than South Carolina’s 33 percent.
Good enough on offense. Good enough on defense.
“I just think this group is really relentless,” Littlefield said.
Just as they had done the entire season, the UNC women’s basketball team left everything they had on the floor.
“I asked these guys to give me both their head and their heart all year long, and that’s what they did,” Banghart said. “This is the team I see every day, all year.”
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