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'We're made of the right stuff': UNC women's basketball learning amid three-game losing skid

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UNC junior forward/center Maria Gakdeng (5) shoots the ball during the Thursday, Nov. 30, 2023 game against the University of South Carolina in Carmichael Arena. UNC lost 65-58.

With less than two minutes remaining and a six-point deficit for UNC, South Carolina's Kamilla Cardoso blocked Maria Gakdeng’s shot attempt, sending the junior center falling to the ground.

Staring down Gakdeng, Cardoso pointed down the court.

Gamecocks ball.

The moment spoke to a theme of North Carolina’s recent losses — despite all efforts to come back, it wasn’t enough. Shots wouldn’t fall, turnovers froze offensive momentum and foul trouble plagued key players. After falling 65-58 to No. 1 South Carolina in Carmichael Arena on Thursday, the Tar Heels are on a three-game losing skid. As seen in its losses to No. 16 Kansas State and Florida Gulf Coast at the Gulf Coast Showcase in Florida, UNC has struggled to score late in games. Against the Gamecocks, the Tar Heels shot 31 percent from the field, including 19 percent from three.

“It’s what keeps coaches up at night, right?” head coach Courtney Banghart said. “What possession could have been different. But they didn’t hire me to be happy that we came close. Those fans didn’t come out and sell out this arena to be close."

In both losses to South Carolina and Kansas State, North Carolina shot less than 20 percent from beyond the arc. Despite chipping the second-half deficit down to two points with under five minutes to go against the Gamecocks, UNC lost momentum as the Tar Heels missed their next four shots from the field

“We were getting some good looks,” senior guard Deja Kelly said. “But not all of our shots fell.”

Banghart said the Tar Heel team that showed up against South Carolina was different from that which lost twice in Florida — defeats Banghart chalked up to cold temperatures at the Gulf Coast Showcase and injuries throughout the roster. The Tar Heels returned to the level of play she recognizes on Thursday.

“We’re not good enough yet, individually or collectively,” Banghart said. “But we’re made of the right stuff. As we continue to move through this season, this will define that for us inside the locker room.”

To Banghart's point, there's some silver linings to the loss: UNC out-rebounded USC, 45-39, and the Tar Heels also dominated the first quarter, taking an early lead while holding the Gamecocks to only four made field goals.

Banghart pointed to Gakdeng specifically as a key offensive leader. The head coach said the Boston College transfer rose to the high expectations the team's set for her on Thursday. Gakdeng connected with the basket for eight points and grabbed 10 rebounds — UNC also outscored USC by 12 points in Gakdeng's 23 minutes on the floor.

“Maria’s a big key piece for us,” senior forward Alyssa Ustby said. “She’s someone that we can rely on defensively and offensively. Seeing her be successful tonight and so far this season, we’re just really glad that she’s on our team.”

When Gakdeng picked up her second foul in the first half, Banghart said the foul trouble started to slow the offense down, as the center had to play more carefully on that end. Last week, it was Ustby’s foul trouble that stunted the Tar Heels in their first two losses of the season.

Banghart said the team was forced to use a shortened rotation at forward again against South Carolina.

“Those bigs, it’s not that they have to handle the ball, but it’s so physical, so it’s really tiring to play,” the head coach said. “[South Carolina] was able to shuttle bigs out and in, and we really weren’t. That hurt us a lot in that game.” 

For North Carolina to break its losing streak, UNC will have to keep its forwards out of foul trouble, as both Ustby and Gakdeng’s scoring is invaluable to the team’s offensive rhythm. The Tar Heels will have to make shots, and, most importantly for Banghart, use this loss as a turning point to bring the team closer together.

“I told them, ‘Win or lose, this doesn’t define you,” Banghart said. “‘It shows you what you’re made of, and you guys were made of the right stuff.’”

@carolinewills03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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