In 2015, the North Carolina women’s basketball team made it to the Sweet 16.
And though they ultimately lost to South Carolina, 67-65 in that game, the Tar Heels would not see that level of success in the NCAA Tournament again for seven years.
Now, after many seasons of mediocrity and a change in head coach, North Carolina is beginning to reestablish itself as a prominent program in women’s basketball.
In her third year with the Tar Heels, head coach Courtney Banghart believed her program would succeed once the team clicked.
After missing the tournament in her first year and seeing a first round exit in her second, the Tar Heel squad made the Sweet 16 this season.
“We just had to pick the right pieces," Banghart said. "We were committed to that both with staffing, with players, with these grad transfers and a combination of the talent we had brought in got so much better. They were ready for the moment.”
That moment — a fierce matchup against powerhouse No. 1 seed South Carolina — featured a North Carolina loss that was expected, yet heartbreaking.
It didn't always seem like the Tar Heels would reach this stage though. In the team's first game against a ranked opponent, the No. 5 N.C. State Wolfpack, the team was blown out, 72-45.
After defeating the No. 21 Duke Blue Devils on the road in late January, North Carolina continued showing signs of inconsistency, exemplified by a loss to an unranked Virginia Tech team.
The Tar Heels redeemed themselves in the next game with an upset 66-65 win over No. 3 Louisville at home, but lost once again to the Hokies in a close overtime game that took them out of the ACC Tournament.
On to the NCAA Tournament the Tar Heels went, winning their first game against Stephen F. Austin, 79-66. In what seemed like an unlucky draw, the Tar Heels had to face a difficult fourth-seed Arizona team in Tucson.
But the team weathered the storm, overcoming the de facto home-court advantage to defeat the Wildcats, 63-45.
Just after the upset win against Arizona, sophomore guard Deja Kelly emphasized how excited she was to compete in the Sweet 16.
“We’ve been through so much,” Kelly said. “We’ve been through such a long season. We’ve just been waiting for this moment. We’ve had talks about getting to the Sweet 16. We’re finally going.”
The Tar Heels were faced with the eventual champion South Carolina Gamecocks and lost, 69-61.
Despite losing to the Gamecocks, North Carolina proved to be one of their tougher opponents, being the only team in their tournament run to keep the final margin within single-digits.
Even with the loss in the Sweet 16, sophomore guard Alyssa Ustby was proud of the journey that her team took throughout the season.
“Those are the girls that I've been working out with all throughout the summer and doing the things in the dark and not getting to show our team's greatness until the season comes,” she said. “Those girls are my ride or die. I just think it's been a great season."
Ustby and the team are currently taking a much-deserved break to focus on recovery and school. But as they reminisce on the ending of a strong season cut short, they can’t help but think of the goals for next year.
“Next week, we're all coming back together and we're hitting workouts on the court and getting in the weight room,” Ustby said. “And then it's go time and we set an expectation for ourselves and that's how we're going to approach every day in our training.”
And what is that expectation?
“We're going make it to the Final Four and the national championships,” Ustby said.
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