Thank You, Taylor Koenen

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On November 11, 2016, Taylor Koenen logged her first statistic in a UNC uniform: a steal off Alabama State’s Kayla Stephens with 5:04 to go in the first quarter. The 6’2″ freshman from Savage, MN finished her debut with six points, three assists, and a team-high nine rebounds. What she did over the next four years would eventually place her in rarefied statistical air in program history. But the numbers, while supremely impressive, don’t really capture what Koenen was during her tenure in Chapel Hill: the indefatigable motor and heartbeat of the Tar Heels.

What set Taylor apart early on was a relentless drive to sharpen and improve not just the elements of her game which had earned her a 5-star recruiting ranking from ESPN, but to broaden her scope to the farthest possible horizon. The competent bench scorer and above-average rebounder of her early freshman season quickly gave way to something else entirely.

From the jump of her sophomore campaign, Koenen was a step faster, clearly stronger, and had a better sense of the floor. Then the metamorphosis started in earnest. It was maybe the Heels’ second home game when she caught a ball on the right elbow with her back to the basket. A bigger defender immediately bodied her up. In 2016, maybe she dribbles around to free up a shot or passes the ball back out to reset. That day, Taylor jammed her core into the defender, backed her all the way down to the rim, and hit a turnaround quasi-hook for two points. A “guard” was out there flashing a back-to-the-basket post game like she’d been doing it all her life. (“Guard” is in quotes because Taylor Koenen truly has no position other than “very good basketball player.”) It was the first in a long line of role-blending talents she would add to her repertoire. By the back stretch of that season, Koenen was a walking Swiss Army Knife; a human skeleton key. She regularly played two-through-four, could serve as a primary ball-handler on the break, and play some small-ball five when necessary. Defensively, she could guard anyone. The flexibility she gave Carolina on both ends was incredible, and she never stopped pushing herself to increase its range. Her protean game unlocked limitless options for her teammates. It’s a well-worn cliche to talk about a player’s “tool box.” If that were literal instead of a metaphor, Taylor would have been driving to Lowe’s every few weeks to get a bigger one. (By the end of her career in Tar Heel Blue, she’d have needed one of those big things on casters that actual auto mechanics use.)

Taylor Koenen was also indestructible. She played all 125 games of her career, starting 106 and logging a staggering 4,100 total minutes. And there was never a play, not even a half-second, when she didn’t have the throttle red-lined. No matter the score, her personal stats on the day, or anything else, Koenen was implacable. She set every screen, made every cut, attacked every defensive assignment and switch like the fate of the universe hung in the balance. That drive earned her a well-deserved captaincy from new head coach Courtney Banghart this past season. In that ceaseless churn of activity, she also racked up 1,214 career points, 347 dimes, and 801 boards.

Koenen painted her Sistine Chapel and recorded her “Giant Steps” in Carmichael on February 2 of this year against Clemson. She poured in a career-high 26 points while shooting .647 from the field and .500 from deep, adding seven boards, six assists, a steal and two blocks for good measure. It was unquestionably the best game of her career. Her most quintessentially Taylor game, however, came a few weeks later: February 23, on the road at Wake.

To set the scene: by this point, the wheels had pretty much come off of Carolina’s season. The Heels had too many injuries and too much inexperience on the bench and it had all compounded to derail a promising first half of the year.  Everyone was running on fumes. Koenen’s minute totals in the preceding month of games: 45, 39, 27, 36, 40, 39, 37, 32. To make matters even worse that day, Janelle Bailey couldn’t go due a late-season injury. That meant an already-exhausted squad was taking the floor without their offensive fulcrum, leading rebounder, and best interior defender. Everyone was going to have to step up.

Madinah Muhammad, Malu Tshitenge, and Shayla Bennett delivered, combining for 49 of Carolina’s 79 points on the day. (Dino in particular was straight fire, tossing up a 21-7-2 line before fouling out.) But all those minutes had finally caught up to Taylor. She was barely getting any lift on her normally dead-eye jumper. She’d miss one short, then overcompensate on the next attempt and clang it off the back iron. The Heels trailed for most of the game. Taylor knew she absolutely needed to contribute, to score, to give them a chance. And so, without her jumper to lean on, she did something incredible.

The one thing Taylor’s never been great at is finishing at the rack in traffic. Her go-to attack off the bounce is to drive into the paint, plant hard, give a defender a little hip bump, and hit a turnaround J. But the J was faulty right just then. So she pushed out of her comfort zone and expanded her range yet again. She attacked the cup head-on. Taylor Koenen put her head down, barrelled full-tilt into the lane, launched herself towards the rim, drew contact, and got to the stripe. Then she did it again. And again. And again. It was an act of pure, superhuman will. The game went to OT and ended in a 82-79 loss. But it’s the actions in the moment that resonate. Taylor played all 45 minutes, finishing with 11 rebounds, three steals and a block. Her scoring total? Well, she went 3-19 from the floor, 0-4 from three. And she was still the Heels’ second-leading scorer with 17 points because she went 11-14 from the line after battering-ramming her way through pain and exhaustion and frustration to get there. She simply refused to do anything other than push herself to the absolute limit to give UNC a shot to win.

That was Taylor Koenen. That was four years summed up in a day. Captain, mechanic, alchemist, engine, and pulse. Tar Heel, now and always. Thank you for four incredible years, Tay. You will never be forgotten. We love you. Whatever comes next, good luck and Go Heels.

Author: mediumjones

Currently attending the Berklee College of Music in Boston for Guitar Performance and Music Synthesis

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