Greetings, y’all, and welcome to a 2020-2021 season in the middle of a pandemic that, if we’re being honest, should not be happening. But since it is, I might as well write about it. Our beloved Heels tipped off this campaign with a thorough 29-point demolition of Radford, downing the Highlanders by a final score of 90-61. There is a LOT to talk about here, but let’s start with a bird’s eye view.
This team is full of new faces, be they transfers or the stacked freshman recruiting class Courtney Banghart brought in. Only Janelle Bailey, Jaelynn Murray, Malu Tshitenge, and Kennady Tucker returned from last year’s squad. Murray, of course, was out all last season with an injury so she’s almost a new addition just by virtue of being able to get on the floor. Tar Heel fans are very familiar with Stephanie Watts’ prowess from her first stint in Chapel Hill, but she’s returning as a grad transfer after an injury-riddled time on the West Coast, so she’s technically “new” too, especially to this coaching staff.
So what did we see in the first game of these new-look Heels?
First and foremost, fans who have lived through the past 5 years or so were treated to a damn-near novel concept: actual, honest-to-God, DEPTH. Despite Tucker and Watts being held out with nagging injuries, Carolina had choices and options to run out on the floor, and players to spell anyone who needed a rest. On her radio show, Coach Bang said that due to the lack of significant preseason reps, she was planning on using these first few non-con games as a laboratory of sorts for various lineups, and she wasn’t joking. The substitutions came early, often, and widely varied. This team is still figuring out which combinations will be effective playing together, and they’re just gonna have to do it on the fly in real time this year. It’s safe to say there were were both promise and problems with most of the groupings on the floor, but the former was far more prominent than the latter in most respects.
Offensively, this was a far more balanced attack than we’ve seen in quite some time. The Heels had six players finish in double digits scoring, and the ball was moving around nicely. (Don’t let the paltry 16 total assists fool you, UNC put people in position to exploit Radford’s defense all game, it was just more shot creation on mismatches or individual efforts in transition than immediate dime-to-bucket stuff.) Carolina came out smoking hot at tip and built a 28-12 lead at the end of the opening frame they would never relinquish. Things did get dicey in the third quarter, when UNC went nearly five minutes without a bucket and Radford got hot, but even in that burst the Highlanders never got the deficit back to single digits. By the 4Q, Coach had pretty much sat down the veteran big guns and let the new kids cook. There was your usual allotment of first-game-of-the-season/freshman mistakes – errant entry passes, some iffy ball handling, etc – but with only 8 turnovers on the day it was an overall convincing outing for a squad that is still clearly figuring itself out.
The defense was a little rocky in stretches, to be sure. On the positive side, everyone was active and moving constantly. The effort was top-notch. It just wasn’t always coherent. Carolina drooped into a 2-3 zone a few times in an effort to change things up, and it wasn’t always effective. The man defense was decent, but there were definitely some possessions where switches weren’t communicated or executed well, or they failed to close out effectively on shooters. That’s to be expected with such a young group,, but it’s something to monitor going forward.
One thing I want to draw particular attention to was the rebounding. I haven’t seen the Heels crash the glass on both ends like this maybe ever. Literally everyone on the floor was hustling for every ball, every possession. The overall margin was 59-34 in Carolina’s favor. Most importantly, it was a balanced effort: 26 offensive boards and 33 on defense. The bigs did their job, and the guards were flying into the lane to grab the rock. There was no shortage of selfless effort, either. I clocked a fair amount of plays where one or two Heels made smart box-outs and allowed their teammates a clear space to operate. It was pretty great.
OK, let’s get into individual players, starting with the old hands. (I’m not going to do this for every game, but since there are so many new folks on board, I’m going through every single person who got some run in this game, just to get a baseline of first impressions.)
Janelle did Janelle things. 10 points on 50%FG, six boards, and two dimes in a tidy 11 minutes. I can’t overstate the luxury of having an actual rotation; being able to rest her so much in a game she clearly wasn’t needed instead of running her into the ground. There were a few possessions during that aforementioned cold stretch in the third quarter where she bricked on some bunnies and spin moves in the paint, but those are shots we’ve seen her make a million times, and I don’t chalk that up to anything more than a fluke or typical early-season stuff. This is her senior campaign, and a preseason All-ACC selection who’s also on the watch lists for the Wade and Lisa Leslie Awards isn’t going to make those mistakes very often.
Anyone who’s been paying attention the past few years know Jaelynn Murray is where Carolina’s emotional center and jubilant swagger comes from. After a full year in street clothes, it was so, so good to see her on the floor again. She was moving pretty well (albiet with a huge leg brace on), but clearly wasn’t 100%, and her explosiveness isn’t really back yet. She clocked 10 minutes and only logged a rebound on her stat line, but she was solid defensively. She’s trying to shake off over a year of rust and coming off a brutal injury; it’s going to take a minute, y’all. Just seeing her out there was a great start.
Lu had a rough game scoring-wise, going 1-5 from the floor, but still pulled down seven boards (5 offensive, including at least two big ones I can recall that kept possessions going when the Heels were struggling a bit.) Like Janelle, she was finally able to rest during a blowout, and only logged 16 minutes. As with her starting front-court teammate, I’m not worried at all about her performance in this game. She was named to the All-ACC Freshman Team (both by coaches and the Blue Ribbon Panel) last year for a reason.
Now, about the new kids:
Petra Holesinska is everything we thought she’d be. The grad transfer from Illinois kicked off her year in Tar Heel Blue with 14 points, including going 4-8 from behind the arc. That is one silky jumper she’s got, folks. Perfect form, tight release, just a stone-cold sniper. She added two rebounds and an assist for good measure, and played competent defense overall, despite a few lapses on that end of the floor. Damn glad she decided to come to Chapel Hill.
Freshman Kennedy Todd-Williams didn’t have a particularly efficient shooting outing (4-13 from the field), but she hit all four of her freebies en route to 12 points, dished out four assists, pulled down nine boards, and tallied a block to boot. For a guard, she’s absolutely vicious in the way she rebounds (think Mikayla Pivec), and has what looks to be a tremendous face-up game attacking the cup downhill. Her drives reminded me a lot of Dino last season, tbh. I’d expect her efficiency to tick up as she gets used to the college game, and whoooweee is she going to be a PROBLEM for opposing defenses once that happens.
In an inverse of KTW’s shooting performance, fellow frosh Anya Poole struggled from the stripe at 2-6, but tallied 10 points anyway on the strength of going 4-5 from the floor. She also racked up nine rebounds (six offensive) and a dime. Poole’s defense was solid overall and very good at moments; she’s definitely capable of playing bigger than her 6’2″ frame on that end. I’d think she’s the candidate to start at the 4 next year if Janelle elects to not use her extra year of eligibility, with Lu moving to the 5.
Alexandra Zelaya had a bad day offensively, tallying only five points in 22 minutes of game action, but showed out on the defensive end. She snagged seven rebounds while notching a steal and a block, and her rotations and court awareness were crisp throughout the game. Given her high school pedigree coming in, I’m hopeful her offensive game will pick up moving forward.
Michigan transfer Ariel Young also scored only five points, all of them coming on free throws, but she showed off the quick, rangy defensive game that put her on Banghart’s radar in the first place. The box score doesn’t reflect how adeptly she defended the wing, and she’ll be a valuable contributor in that aspect of the game no matter what.
Y’all, Alyssa Ustby had herself a helluva debut: 13 points on 6-7 shooting, six boards, three dimes, two steals, and a block. (That’s from a 6’1″ guard, by the way.) The offensive showing was very, very good, but her defense is what jumped off the screen. The two steals don’t account for all the other passing lanes she jumped and deflected or all the balls she poked away from Highlander players to disrupt Radford’s offense. She’s got quick hands, even quicker instincts, and possibly eyes in the back of her head. Seriously, her court awareness and footwork are already top-flight and this was her first game as a true freshman. She’s likely got a ceiling way higher than what she just showed us and that should excite anyone reading this.
Saved the best for last: Deja Kelly. What did the freshman guard do? Oh, not much, just put up a team-high 19 points with four boards, three dimes and a steal in 25 minutes. She has legit burners, repeatedly split defenders in transition, and made smart passes for the most part. Y’all saw exactly what this looked like, right? … Should I say it? … I’m gonna say it: Deja looked like a freaking Chennedy Carter clone in this game. Think back to Hollywood’s freshman year at Texas A&M, and you saw all the same characteristics. The handles, the burst, the ability to knife through defenses, the fearlessness, the court vision that’s clearly there but just needs some seasoning, all of it. In a week centered around giving thanks, realizing we’re going to have the privilege of watching Deja Kelly ball out for for Carolina these next few years was a #BLESSED moment for real.
Look, there’s every possibility this is an overoptimistic reading of this game and these players. The endorphin rush of watching the Heels on the floor for the first time in forever could very well be influencing the objectivity I (mostly) try to maintain regarding this team. After all, they did what they were supposed to do; blow out a lesser non-con opponent. But I really believe if I’ve overstated their potential based on one game (and yes, I know, I’m a stats nerd, I’m aware of the “small sample size” fallacy potential here), that I haven’t overstated it by much. Frankly, the fact that they could add Tucker and the absolute killer that is a healthy (please God) Steph Watts into this mix is making me downright giddy. Anyway, it was a great way to start the season. Happy Turkey Day to all y’all. It’s gonna be a season for our squad. As always, GO HEELS!