When Courtney Banghart stepped onto the court in the Petersen Events Center, she wasn’t wearing her usual UNC quarter zip.
Instead, she sported a black t-shirt that featured the faces of all 12 players on the North Carolina women’s basketball roster.
Not all 12 players made the trip, as starting guard Eva Hodgson was unable to travel to Pittsburgh due to illness.
Banghart knew how difficult the Panthers would be to beat, describing the 0-9 ACC team as “starving for a win.” Without her best three-point shooter and team leader, a UNC victory would be much harder. In the end, the Tar Heels prevailed, beating Pittsburgh 72-57 to secure their sixth consecutive ACC victory — a feat the program hasn't pulled off since the 2012-13 season.
During the postgame press conference, Banghart showed off her shirt to the media, taking off her jacket and making sure each player's face was visible to the camera.
“With Eva not here and knowing that our crowd wasn't here, we needed all 12 tonight,” she said.
It wasn’t an easy win though, as the Panthers controlled the game for the first 30 minutes.
With sophomore forward Destiny Adams stepping in for Hodgson, UNC struggled due to its altered lineup.
Hodgson boasts the highest 3-point shooting percentage of the team at 40.6 percent, and averages 10.2 points per game. Prior to Thursday, she had recorded minutes in all but two of North Carolina's contests this season and served as an integral playmaker for the team.
Although Adams falls right behind Hodgson in 3-point percentage, the Tar Heels struggled to get shots to fall without Hodgson's steadfast presence on Thursday. UNC shot just 34.5 percent from the field in the first half.
However, as the team has done time and time again, the Tar Heels were able to make a monumental fourth-quarter charge to emerge on top.
Without Hodgson, who Banghart calls the “cheerleader” of the team, North Carolina had to lean heavily on its three core junior players: point guard Deja Kelly, small forward Alyssa Ustby and wing Kennedy Todd-Williams. Together, the trio accounted for 61 of UNC’s 72 total points and each had a plus-minus of 15.
UNC trailed by four after a lackluster first half, which Banghart attributed to a lack of emotion.
“We were like, 'Alright guys, we’re on the road. We know we only got each other,'" Kelly, who led all scorers on the night with 23 points, said. "We got each other's energy to pull out this win on the road. We’re all we had on the road so we just had to pick each other up to pull out the win.”
UNC clawed its way back from an eight-point deficit in the second half to a 15-point win. The Tar Heels fed off each other and started passing the ball more to create better shooting opportunities against Pitt's relentless 2-3 zone.
Todd-Williams, who recorded a career-high 22 points, gave credit to the core of upperclassmen for building the team’s momentum.
“It starts with the whole team, but everyone has to bring their piece,” she said. “I think doing that and helping the team come along with the momentum — especially with the road games — it's hard. It's super hard.”
Despite the difficulty of digging out of another hole, North Carolina notched its sixth conference victory, solidifying itself as a serious contender for the ACC regular-season title. In the face of tough conference competition, after six tough wins, Banghart believes in her team's ability to fight through difficult games and come out on top.
Furthermore, the Tar Heels' ability to win without Hodgson — who is in her final year of athletic eligibility — will be key in the 2023-24 season. In order to have longevity as a program, it is important that North Carolina’s success is not wholly dependent on a singular player.
They proved it isn't with the win against the Panthers.
“It just shows an enormous amount of grit and fortitude for our guys," Banghart said. "They just keep on keepin’ on."
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