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'The biggest missing piece': Maria Gakdeng brings shot-blocking, low post game to UNC women's basketball

UNC junior forward/center Maria Gakdeng (5) during the women’s basketball media day in Carmichael Arena on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023.

Watching junior center Maria Gakdeng block a shot in Carmichael Arena is a daily occurrence in the North Carolina women's basketball team's practices. 

In those moments, head coach Courtney Banghart said the team can only watch, laugh and say, “Whoa.” 

Soon, it will be a sight that fans can expect to witness.

Gakdeng, a transfer from Boston College, is looking to fill a gap in the UNC roster — an inside threat who can help the team reach its Final Four aspirations. Ranking third in blocked shots and top-25 in scoring in the ACC last season, the 6-foot-3 inch Maryland native provides North Carolina with a two-way player who can combat physicality in the paint. 

“This is the spot,” Gakdeng said. “It was a top-25 team that needed someone like me.” 

‘It just comes natural to me’

When Gakdeng entered the transfer portal last year, Banghart wasted no time in reaching out. It’s safe to say the Tar Heels felt that they needed her, too.

Senior guard Deja Kelly said the Tar Heels were lacking a solid post presence who can rebound and, more importantly, protect the rim. North Carolina’s shot blocking last season was nothing remarkable, as the team averaged 3.8 blocks per game — good for 77th in the nation.

“Playing against her, it wasn’t that fun because I couldn’t get to the rim much,” Kelly said. “It’s great to have that on our team now.” 

Gakdeng averaged nearly two blocked shots per game last year. In just two seasons with the Eagles, the center accumulated 131 blocks — for reference, senior forward Alyssa Ustby, the Tar Heels’ leading shot-blocker, has recorded 63 in her career. 

“I like to block shots,” Gakdeng said. “[It’s] one of my favorite things to do. It’s easy to track the ball. It just comes natural to me.”

Redshirt sophomore guard Kayla McPherson can easily pinpoint her first memory of a Gakdeng block. 

The women’s team frequently competes against a select group of male players, and on this specific day, a soon-to-be Gakdeng victim drove in for a layup. In response, the transfer jumped up and, in the words of McPherson, “she sent it.”

“I’m telling you, not a lot of layups are going to be going up against us,” McPherson said.

‘I’m like the president of the Maria fan club’

While defense is what Banghart is currently “harping” on in practice, Gakdeng's low-post scoring ability matches her defensive prowess. In her final season with the Eagles, the junior averaged 11.3 points per game, shooting 57.8 percent from the field. 

According to Banghart, Gakdeng’s length and ability to finish around the basket — what’s been lauded by her teammates as a “crazy touch” — will only add to her impact.

“I think [she was] one of the good, young bigs last year in the country,” Banghart said. “And she’s only gotten better.”

By competing alongside players who can give her more space on the floor, the UNC head coach believes Gakdeng will only continue to improve on the offensive end.

The transfer has already garnered national attention. In October, Gakdeng was named to this year’s Lisa Leslie Center of the Year Award watchlist. 

Although Gakdeng was happy to trade freezing Boston winters for a milder North Carolina climate, she said her prior experience competing against ACC teams only serves to make her a more of an all-around threat. 

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“I’m pretty long, so on offense I run the floor, get the ball in the paint, finish around the rim pretty well and then am able to shoot mid-range,” Gakdeng said. “Also rebounding is something that we’re working on that we need to get better at. That’s something that you guys can expect from me.”

From the moment she arrived at UNC in June, the junior transfer said she quickly meshed with the other players. Chapel Hill is everything she was looking for, and in turn, the Tar Heels are finding everything they were looking for in Gakdeng.

In Kelly’s words, the transfer is “the biggest missing piece that we’ve needed for a while.”

“I’m like the president of the Maria fan club,” Banghart said. “But I’ve got a lot of people fighting me for that.”


@dthsports |