CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At last year's ACC Tipoff, North Carolina women's basketball head coach Courtney Banghart remembers feeling as if her team was "flying under the radar."
But after starting last season on a 13-game win streak and returning to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2015, it's impossible not to pay attention to UNC. During Tuesday's interviews at the ACC's annual preseason event, Banghart acknowledged that her team isn't being underestimated this season.
"Now, the target is big on our back," she said.
This UNC squad has all the makings of a team well-equipped for a deep postseason run: defensive anchors, experienced guards and a coach that has had plenty of time to implement her system. The Tar Heels enter this season with plenty of expectations from both themselves and their opponents, and the burden is on them to make it over the hump into national contention.
Banghart – entering her fourth season at North Carolina – said she was used to having a target on her back while dominating the Ivy League at Princeton. The UNC players on the other hand? Not so much.
“I don't know if they (are ready for a target on their back) in the form of the adversity that comes with that," Banghart said. "I don't know how they'll handle that because they haven't seen it yet.”
Last season, UNC played a weak non-conference schedule that garnered very few wins of the sort that would catch the eye of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. That's all changing this fall, as UNC will face off against formidable power five opponents like Oregon, Indiana and Michigan away from the comfort of Carmichael Arena.
Banghart said she crafted this schedule with the goal of earning a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now that UNC's roster isn't so young anymore, Banghart thinks that her team has the big-game experience to handle such a tough non-conference slate.
"You work so hard to get a good team, and when you have a good team, you want to go out and play anybody and everybody," Banghart said. "And so it was intentional. And I bit off a big, big bite, but I know (the team) will be ready.”
The heart of this UNC team is its junior class, which includes All-ACC selections Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby and versatile wing Kennedy Todd-Williams. That trio led the roster in scoring last season and now looks to take on an increased leadership role as upperclassmen.
Kelly, a combo guard that can score from all areas of the floor, said that the time is now for this team to make the leap to national relevance.
"We can't use the excuse of, ‘Oh, we're young, we're a young group' anymore because we're not," Kelly said. "We're now older. We have two years under our belts.”
Those two years consisted of plenty of ups and downs as the team formed its identity. In 2021, UNC hovered around a .500 record and made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in the Banghart era, losing to Alabama in the first round.
The year after, the Tar Heels proved they were here to stay, battling it out with No. 1 seed and eventual national champion South Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen. UNC lost by eight points, the closest any team played the Gamecocks en route to the title.
"You look back and you see how far we came, knowing that we can make a run," Todd-Williams said. "And so it gave us a little boost and a chip (knowing) that people have overlooked us, but we put the NCAA on notice and that's what's exciting."
But while the attention surrounding the Tar Heels has ramped up, the team's mindset must remain unchanged, Banghart said. While other ACC teams circle the UNC matchup on their calendars, so too must the Tar Heels look to knock off the top teams in the conference.
“Whether you're hunted or not, you have to be hunting, right? Or you'll die," Banghart said. "It's actually like an ecosystem thing. So we are going to continue to hunt and look forward and know that people are going to be hunting us from behind.”
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