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'Sorry that we were so injured': Lack of depth hurts Tar Heels against UConn

20231210_Peng_wbb-hof-unc-uconn
UNC first-year guard Reniya Kelly (10) and UConn senior forward Aaliyah Edwards (3) dive for a loose ball during the women's basketball game at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023. UNC fell 76-64 to the Huskies.

UNCASVILLE, Conn. – Courtney Banghart’s team was exhausted. 

As the Tar Heels’ head coach took extra time to answer the media’s questions in the bowels of Mohegan Sun Arena, you could tell she was exasperated. She even started her postgame press conference with an apology: “Sorry that we were so injured.”

With multiple All-Americans out, we’ve got to get healthy,” Banghart said dryly, before adding, “But we’re on the road to recovery, we’ll say it that way.” 

The injury bug was too much for North Carolina to overcome, as the team could not hold off a Husky charge in the third quarter and fell 76-64. Only seven Tar Heels saw the court, with four of them playing at least 34 minutes. As a result, UConn outscored UNC 29-13 in the third quarter.

Rewind about three hours to pregame warmups.

North Carolina took the floor with a contingent standing at mid-court in navy tracksuits. Key rotation pieces Kayla McPherson and Paulina Paris were out on a game-by-game basis. Highly-touted first-years Ciera Toomey and Laila Hull were out for the season.

Fast-forward to minutes before game time. Banghart and UConn head coach Geno Auriemma — who has been forced to tweak his lineup following a season-ending injury to Azzi Fudd, among other restraints — met in between their respective benches. 

They’re beat up, too,” Banghart said. “Geno and I were kind of joking before the game, if we both were healthy, y’all would have had quite a game to watch.”

Contrary to Banghart’s implication, there was indeed high-level basketball played between North Carolina and Connecticut in the Basketball Hall of Fame Women’s Showcase. But fatigue for North Carolina manifested in the second half and proved to be the difference in the game.

The first half went quite alright. Yes, the Tar Heels struggled in the opening quarter, turning the ball over eight times and falling into a 19-10 hole after 10 minutes. But they battled back.

UNC took much better care of the ball in the second quarter and created second-chance and transition opportunities. Senior forward Alyssa Ustby and junior center Maria Gakdeng combined for eight straight North Carolina points, and the Tar Heels came back to lead 30-28 with just over three minutes to play before halftime. 

Banghart’s team entered the locker room tied with the Huskies at 36.

Then, as the third quarter began, the needle started to lean towards empty. To add insult to injury (literally), first-year guard Reniya Kelly, who provided a spark off the bench early in the game, did not return in the second half after taking a hard fall in the first.

Connecticut capitalized on several sloppy UNC turnovers, sparking a quick 11-0 run to start the quarter. The Tar Heels fought back again to make it a 5-point game. 

That, however, is when the car started to sputter. The Tar Heels had nothing left. UConn pulled away, leaving UNC in the dust 16 points adrift after the third quarter.

It’s hard not to be discouraged [about injuries], but you don’t coach a team just on good days,” Banghart said. “It’s just part of the process, and it’s gonna give a lot of experience to some other guys that are gonna get a lot of minutes out of the deal. It’s an untold story that we have so many [past high school] All-Americans that are not playing basketball right now. It’s such a bummer.”

Senior guard Deja Kelly, who played all 40 minutes, said after the game she and the other guards should have handled the fatigue better.

We know that we’re short, we’re gonna be fatigued,” Kelly said. “But I think that was even more of a reason for us to push through.”

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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