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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC women’s basketball builds team chemistry on a new type of court: pickleball


Members of the UNC women's basketball team huddle during the game against Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, Ohio on Monday, March 20, 2023.

How do you get a group of 15 highly competitive athletes to come together as a team and bond in just a few months? You let them compete against each other. 

The UNC women's basketball team sought to build strong connections among its mix of new players. To achieve this, they encouraged competition and teamwork off the basketball court. The team — which includes five first-years and three transfers — engaged in various activities to foster camaraderie and fuel their competitive spirit.

Head coach Courtney Banghart said at the 2023 ACC Tipoff that meshing the entire team was something she worried about, but ultimately, this group was the "easiest team so far to coach."

"These guys really like one another," Banghart said. "They're connected."

They played “Minute to Win It” and “Family Feud.” Sometimes they would venture off campus and participate in atypical activities like whitewater rafting. They also got a sprinkle of many other sports, like wiffle ball, water polo and even golf, which first-year Ciera Toomey allegedly dominated. 

“Ciera would whoop our butts every single time,” sophomore guard Kayla McPherson said. 

McPherson admitted that she wasn’t a golf prodigy herself. “I’m awful,” she said. “I put this orange ball in the basket, that’s all I do.”

Yes, they were still putting in work on the court. But the secret to building good team rapport for this year’s group of Tar Heels was to do everything together besides just putting an orange ball in a basket.

One of the main sports they tried their hand at was pickleball. In August, the Tar Heels met at the courts on South Campus and picked up some paddles. As pickleball made its way onto UNC’s smorgasbord of bonding activities, the players quickly got competitive over the game. 

But it was their coach who may have been the most notable pickleball player out there.

When told that many of her players deemed her the best pickleball player at UNC's team media day in October, Banghart had a quick and confident response: “Facts.”

She said that the pairing of senior forward Alyssa Ustby and first-year guard Sydney Barker gave her a run for her money, but the consensus among the players was that Banghart runs the pickleball courts.

“She’s the master at it,” McPherson said. “We follow her lead. She taught me all her pointers.”

Sophomore guard Paulina Paris said she has had a lot of time to bond with the first-years — she lives with or near all five of them. Her pickleball partner was first-year RyLee Grays, and even though she and Grays fell short of winning, Paris said she knew how important outings like these are.

“I think just being out there for an hour thirty, doing something else that wasn’t basketball, it just brought us closer throughout the summer,” Paris said. “And even the trust thing, it got us to trust each other. It was a good offseason.”

While some of the activities, like playing pickleball, are organized by Banghart and the coaches, the bonds that are built while the team competes, in every imaginable way, are organic.

“TikTok dance-offs, I mean, you name it,” Banghart said. “We kind of do it all. This group really likes one another. They go to the football games, or they go to the soccer games or the field hockey games together, and I’m sure they’re competing on who can get in first and who has the better seat.”


@dthsports |

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