CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Entering this year's ACC Tipoff, UNC women’s basketball coach Courtney Banghart could breathe a sigh of relief.
Things are looking bright for her team, and this year, everyone knows it.
The Tar Heels return four starters from their Sweet 16 run in juniors Deja Kelly, Kennedy Todd-Williams, Alyssa Ustby and Anya Poole — all of whom started in every game last year.
Here are the three takeaways from the team's appearance at the ACC Tipoff:
The Tar Heels now have a target on their back
According to Banghart, UNC entered last year’s ACC Tipoff “a bit under the radar.”
This year, with North Carolina returning eight of its top nine scorers from a squad that held a 13-5 ACC record last season, another NCAA Tournament isn't just likely — it's expected.
“I think there’s an element of confidence and growth to their game and physicality that they bring,” Banghart said. “Just the assurance that they’ve been here before.”
The Tar Heels are ranked 12th in ESPN's recent Way-Too-Early Poll, but UNC’s core is expected to perform especially well at an individual level. ESPN analyst Kelly Gramlich ranked Poole, Ustby, Todd-Williams and Kelly within the top five ACC players of their respective position groups.
However, the team isn’t letting this pressure get to them.
"We know that people are now looking at us and trying to watch out for us," Kelly said. "Either way, we’re gunning for you and we’re ready to compete and we're looking to win."
New faces bring new skill sets
The team is penning just one new name to the roster in first-year Paulina Paris, a combo guard from Congers, N.Y. who Banghart said has “brought so much New York flair to our game.”
Two more fresh faces will be seen on the court in redshirt first-years Teonni Key and Kayla McPherson, both of whom are returning from injury.
Key, a 6-foot-4 forward who was named to the ACC Newcomer Watch List a year ago, is returning from a torn ACL and will look to make an immediate impact in the frontcourt.
As for McPherson, North Carolina announced on Monday that the former McDonald's All-American guard will join the team later in the season after being sidelined due to a lower-body injury sustained in practice. While Banghart said it’s “not quite as bad as the first time” (referencing a high school knee injury), McPherson will miss at least the non-conference schedule.
Despite McPherson’s now-delayed return, she was cited by Banghart, Kelly and Todd-Williams as a player that will surprise some people this year as she joins an incoming squad of highly-ranked recruits finally primed to make their mark.
"Teonni (Key) is very long," Todd-Williams said. "Kayla (McPherson) is very fast. Paulina (Paris) — she can shoot the lights out and she has pace to her. Their own mixture of where they came from, I think that (will help) us.
Competitiveness of the ACC
Banghart, now in her fourth year as UNC’s head coach, has been candid about her decision to leave Princeton. She said on Tuesday that, during her 12-year tenure as the Tigers' head coach, there were “very few schools” she would’ve left for, “but the ACC is something different.”
“There are just no bad teams,” Banghart said. “There are no ebbs and flows of let down, play hard, let down, play hard. It’s just go, go, go. I love that."
This year, the ACC hosts four other teams ranked in the Early Top 25 poll in Notre Dame, Louisville, Virginia Tech and N.C. State, but the competition doesn’t stop there.
There are truly no bottom feeders in the conference, as eight ACC teams made the NCAA Tournament last year. The Tar Heels will have a particularly difficult schedule, as the team will play twice against a challenging slate of regional opponents — Duke, N.C. State, Virginia, and Virginia Tech.
Banghart noted that the ACC is so competitive that all teams will face tough battles throughout the course of the season, and “for the first time in a long time” the road to winning the conference “could have multiple losses”.
"I think people that are fans of basketball, regardless of where they are in the country, should be locked into the ACC this year,” she said.
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