When I graduated college, I was gigging pretty regularly with a few bands, but mostly paying rent and buying food by working as a delivery driver for Jimmy Johns. For a kid from Atlanta, driving in Minneapolis, MN in winter was like that moment in Bambi when he tries to walk on ice. I was out on a delivery in December when I made the mistake of not tapping the breaks and then gently applying pressure to stop on an icy road. The car in front of me had braked, and as my front bumper skidded toward it, my brain was screaming at its own idiot self “your insurance rates are SCREWED, my guy.” I yanked the wheel hard, steered into the skid, and missed the other car’s back end by an inch or two, stopping perpendicular in the lane. I had exactly one second to breathe a sigh of relief before the Ford F350 Super Duty behind me slammed into my passenger side and caved the whole thing in. Other than a few minor cuts from shattered glass, I miraculously walked away unharmed.
Yes, this is a metaphor for the current state of the Heels. The 81-75 win over Charlotte was barely avoiding that back bumper and taking a “whew” moment. Could’ve been worse due to carelessness and inattention to detail; wound up being OK for a sec. Everything that’s happened since is that big ol’ truck plowing into my beloved “Emily” and crumpling her like so much scrap metal.
I was willing to write the Wake game off to a certain extent. Young team in their first road test of the year, Raca and Conti have been kryptonite to us for years, etc, etc. What happened in Coral Gables yesterday was different.
This was a trash fire of a game from start to finish. Miami came out and started dropping bombs from behind the arc, Carolina got flustered, started flailing, and despite a late push, just didn’t have the gas.
The shooting splits were a terrifying thing to behold: 36.2/15.8/45.5. There were enough bricks to build a palace. And look, to be fair, in what wound up a 67-63 loss, if even a few kind bounces fall UNC’s way, this is probably a win or it at least goes to OT.
What was more concerning was the listlessness and poor decision making that seemed to get worse as the game dragged on. Janelle had the successful only full-game effort I clocked, putting up a 14-13 with three blocks. Anya Poole was tenacious on the glass early, ending up with 10 boards of her own, but couldn’t contribute much beyond that. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give big ups to KTW for busting her tail (5-8-2-1-1 in 26 minutes) despite an inconsistent day overall. This was the Heels’ second disjointed performance in a row. Poor shot selection, sloppy defense, 15 turnovers, and the aforementioned shooting woes.
If there’s a bright spot to take away, it’s that two of the freshmen basically said “we are NOT losing this game” down the stretch. While Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby couldn’t ultimately make that a reality, they absolutely balled the hell out to claw back in and then keep it close late. Deja was the only reason there wasn’t a doughnut hole in the team “makes” column on treys, going 3-6. She finished with 16 total points off of a combination of that outside shooting and some drives where she used her first step to absolutely blow through the Canes’ defense. I know I’ve dais it before, but she’s gonna to be all-caps SPECIAL. Ustby was everywhere, with 17-8-3 and four steals and good GAWD y’all she pulled off at least three reverse finishes at the rack that had me grinning. The fact that two frosh basically exerted sheer force of will to drag Carolina back into this one only bodes well for the future.
Again: things are not good right now. This was a bad loss; the second one in a row, and some of the limitations of this team (at least as they exist right this second) are glaringly obvious at the moment.
The thing about getting blind-sided in a car wreck is that the insurance check eventually comes through. And however long that takes, you might wind up with a better whip than you had before. I did. I think the Heels will too. Maybe this team won’t be what we thought it was after the first few games. They are young and learning and maybe there won’t be a HOLY SH*T moment like the Notre Dame game two seasons ago during the regular season. But all that talent and promise is still there and Coach Bang literally built the resume that got her to Chapel Hill in the first place by elevating her Princeton teams to heights no rational person thought was possible. By ACC Tourney time this might be a much different squad. A full season’s worth of experience and familiarity can do wonders, especially under the tutelage of this coaching staff. And hell, if we don’t rattle some cages this year, it’ll be soon. It’s coming. Conference play has been a downer so far, but it’s a long road from here to March. Hopefully Carolina can turn things around Thursday night against ‘Cuse. Until then, feel the pessimism you want to feel, be as sad or angry as you want about the conference performance so far, but keep the faith. And as always, GO HEELS!!!
OK, so the Heels took a 57-54 L to Wake in their ACC opener Thursday night. It happened. And it was … let’s be polite and say not pretty. I’m going straight to the numbers here because there is both hope and concern to be found therein.
Shooting splits: Carolina 34.8/11.1/66.7. Wake: 35.0/9.5/81.3. Turnovers: Carolina 15, Wake 14. Assists: Carolina 9, Wake 7. Fouls: Carolina 16, Wake 15. The theme here is that both teams played like absolute trash in basically every aspect of the game. The issue in this one was not the number of shots UNC missed, or how many times they coughed up the ball. It wasn’t even the fouls. All of those were pretty much equal for both teams. It was the KIND of fouls the Tar Heels committed.
UNC went 6-9 from the stripe on Thursday. Wake shot 13-16. Carolina fouled the Deacs much more often either when a player was in the act of shooting or after they were already in the bonus. In such a tight game, those kinds of mistakes have consequences. If those FT attempts are reversed, the Heels leave Winston Salem with a victory.
Let’s pivot to the positive side here. Jen Hoover is a very good coach and this Wake team started their season by doing the following: Hanging tight for a half with #14 Arkansas, beating Davidson, beating #24 Missouri State, and beating Charlotte. None of those games were at home. They have two legit All-Caps BALLERS in Gina Conti and Ivana Raca, both of whom have given Carolina plenty of trouble over the past few years, and they did so again in this game. In other words, this wasn’t a game we should be particularly upset about losing. (Note: this did not prevent me from screaming at the TV plenty on Thursday night.)
A few individual highlights right quick: Freshman Anya Poole made her second start of the year and put up 12 points, 11 boards, a dime, a steal, and two blocks. I want to specifically shout out Poole for some tenacious work on the offensive glass which she converted into put-backs more often than not. Janelle put up 11-8; admittedly below her usual standard, but still one of the better nights anyone in Carolina Blue had. Petra, despite a horrific no-show on three-point attempts, logged 12-3-3 and a steal thanks to some crafty dribble-drive work and nice finishing around the rim.
More positives: UNC should not turn in a shooting performance that poor again this season. I mean, Petra goes 2-6 behind the arc instead of the bagel she put up, they leave Lawrence Joel with a W. Every player on the roster has a ceiling somewhere between over and WAY over what we saw against Wake. Even the best players have bad games now and then, but the odds of Carolina self-combusting en masse like that again aren’t high. And I’ll keep hammering the point: this team is very, very young and even more unfamiliar with each other. Barring something catastrophic (which unfortunately is drastically more likely this year because *gestures wildly at everything*), they’re going to be so much better at the end of the season than they are right now.
As you probably know, tomorrow’s scheduled road tilt with #2 Louisville has been postponed while the Cards go through quarantine and contact-tracing protocols following some positive COVID tests in the program. We wish everyone within the Louisville Women’s Basketball family a swift and full recovery, and hope they remain safe going forward. Sending love and good thoughts from the Thrill to the ‘Ville, y’all.
PLEASE EVERYONE: BE SAFE AND WEAR A F******** MASK!!!!!!!!
Anyway, in far less important news, Carolina’s next game is back home in Carmichael on December 17th against Syracuse. If you’re reading this, I assume you’ll be watching anyway, but make a point to tune in for ‘Cuse PG Tiana Mangakahia. She missed last year while she was battling and then beating breast cancer, and is now back balling out as one of the best pure point guards in the country. We’ll see if UNC can handle her and the rest of the Orange as they look to bounce back. Until next time, be well, stay safe, and as always: GO HEELS!!!
Sorry this one’s clocking in a little late; it was a rough end to the week, y’all. Not that you need much of a recap of a 98-28 decimation, anyway. Carolina absolutely owned SC State’s Lady Bulldogs from the opening tip on both ends, including a smothering defensive effort which peaked in holding the opposition to just three total points in the second frame. Three. 3. Tres. Trois. Frankly, the Heels could have easily topped out at 120 points or more on the other end if they hadn’t basically taken their collective foot off the gas in the fourth quarter.
All five starters (Lu, Janelle, Deja, KTW, and Petra) finished in double figures scoring. Kelly’s team-high 16 came via ludicrous shooting splits of 0.86/0.75/1.00 in just 14 minutes of floor time, including 3/4 from behind the arc. Imagine trying to defend UNC this season if she and Petra can both shoot 40%+ from deep and you have to keep defenders on their hips on the perimeter at all times … yeesh. Yeah, have fun doing that while also finding ways to stop Janelle and Lu down low.
Lu had 11 with two rebounds, Janelle tossed up a 15-9-1 with a block, and Petra had 13 with seven dimes, two boards, two steals and a block to boot. And shouts to Anya Poole coming off the bench and pulling down 11 monster rebounds with two points and two blocks.
The game, however, belonged to freshman Kennedy Todd-Williams. KTW racked up a 14-10-9 with four steals, a line which left her one assist short of the program’s first ever triple-double. Yes, you read that correctly; no player in UNC Women’s Hoops history has ever notched a trip-dub in a game. That seems ridiculous, but it’s the truth. (By the way, she absolutely hits that mark if Coach Bang plays her a few more minutes or Carolina doesn’t slow the offense waaaayyy down in the final period.) To be clear, she did log the most minutes of any Tar Heel in the game at 21, and with the brutal run of conference play right around the corner, Coach is understandably using the depth to conserve everyone’s legs. Also, she probably felt like this was a bad enough whoopin’ and didn’t want to be needlessly cruel.
One thing I’m still concerned about: turnovers. Certainly a few caveats apply here. This is an extremely young team. Half the roster are true freshmen, and three of the veterans are transfers. Even Steph, who knows a few returning Heels, is coming back after some time away and still not quite back to her former peak after dealing with injuries. They’re going to take some time to cohere. Per Her Hoop Stats , Carolina currently ranks 2nd in all of DI in offensive rating (good), 13th defensively (take out the trash 1Q of the High Point game and this looks way better, I bet), and 4th in net rating. All of this is fine, and this team will obviously tighten things up as the season goes on. But 10.5 turnovers a game (15th in the country) is concerning. We’ve been playing cupcakes so far; teams with vastly inferior talent who don’t have the capability or athleticism to force that many cough-ups without a considerable amount of mistakes by the Heels themselves.
Again, this is all perfectly normal for a young/unfamiliar group of teammates still learning to communicate and intuit each other’s tendencies, but … they have one more tune-up against Charlotte on Sunday (6:00PM ET, on ACC Network) before conference play starts with TWO ROAD GAMES. Wake Forest already showed they’re legit by hanging close with #14 Arkansas and beating #24 Missouri State in the Gulf Coast Showcase to open their season. And right after that, Carolina has to head to (currently) #5 Louisville, who just put a 116-75 beat down on #25 DePaul. I am particularly worried about the turnovers because I still have PTSD from sitting in Carmichael last year when we hosted the Cardinals, and watched a team averaging 11.4 turnovers a game cough up 12 to the opposition in the first half alone. It was probably the difference in what wound up a close 67-74 loss, and this year’s Cards might be better than what we faced last season.
I suppose there’s plenty of time to fret over this stuff later, I just can’t help looking ahead. *Shifts back to optimistic mindset* – beating anyone by 70 is good, and it could’ve been a bigger margin had Carolina wanted to make it so. This team is good, young, electrifying to watch, and might be brewing something special. They’ll go against Charlotte tomorrow and will hopefully iron out some of the (admittedly nitpicking) issues in that one. See y’all soon and as always, GO HEELS.
Whew. Let’s all take a minute and a few deep breaths after the most nail-biting 25-point blowout of all time.
Actually, before I get into this one, lemme add two notes right quick.
As I type, Syracuse PG Tiana Mangakahia just went out and kicked ass in her first game back after taking a year off to, y’know, BEAT BREAST CANCER. Having done a feature on her in a previous life, I can report that she is a truly wonderful, kind human in addition to being one of the best pure point guards I’ve ever seen. This is incredible and I may or may not be typing through tears right now.
Yesterday, Sarah Fuller, the goalie for Vanderbilt’s SEC-champion soccer team, played in another kind of football game, and executed a perfect squib quick down the right sideline that was exactly what the ‘Dores dialed up. Predictably, a bunch of idiot misogynists took to Twitter to say the kick was bad. If you can’t recognize the play design, why Vandy made that call, or how well-placed Fuller’s kick was, maybe just shut the hell up. Also maybe stop watching football. Why watch something you don’t understand?
OK, about the game.
If I’d told you ahead of time Carolina would get a 95-70 victory out of this, your response would have been “ah, well, High Point was one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country last year. Surely they got hot to keep it even that close.” Nope. That’s not what happened at all.
In fairness, the Heels finished their last game less than 24 hours before this one tipped. High Point had yet to play yet this season, so they were going to have fresher legs. That still doesn’t account for getting smacked out of the gate the way Carolina did. After Petra hit a runner to open up the scoring (she has a better dribble-drive attack than we knew, as Coach Bang said in a recent interview), we went cold. Frigid, even. There were a lot of well-executed offensive possessions that ended in bricks and failing to secure rebounds. Meanwhile, the Panthers’ Skyler Curran put on an absolute clinic in the opening frame, scoring the next 17 points by either team, including absolutely crushing from behind the arc. The Heels came out flat and got punished early. Part of that was probably the short rest; part of it was also a young team who wiped the floor with their first two opponents and didn’t expect to be in a real fight before conference play.
UNC got the throttle in gear in the second quarter. The defense was more crisp and active, cutters started finding open floor near the rim on offense, and the shooting heated up after realizing this wasn’t going to be a walkover victory.
Carolina narrowed the deficit to five points at the half, came out spitting fire after the break, and salted the game away early in the final frame, never looking back.
Y’all: STEPH. WATTS. BACK. This was vintage Steph, the kind of game we saw in her first go ’round in Chapel Hill while she was racking up awards left and right. She logged a team-high 21 points, 12 boards, six dimes, five steals, and a block. Steph absolutely refused to lose this one, and was a blur all over the court.
Once again, five players finished in double figures scoring. In addition to Watts’ 21, three Heels logged a spicy 15 points each. Janelle, Anya and Alyssa all hit that mark, while combining for 26 of UNC’s 56 total rebounds. Petra put up a 12-2-2 on 50% shooting. And let me shout out KTW putting up seven points, four boards, a block, and some absolutely tremendous second-half defensive hustle.
Overall, lets just chalk this up to a lesson learned. Can’t take any game for granted, even if talent and depth allow Carolina to end an initially harrowing affair with a blowout. Still undefeated, still rolling. Go Heels.
The Tar Heels welcomed the UNC Greensboro Spartans to Carmichael this afternoon and did exactly what they did in their season opener against Radford: put on a wire-to-wire show of absolute dominance. For the second straight year, Courtney Banghart’s team started off 2-0, after cruising over their in-state opponents to a 96-35 victory. Once again, everyone contributed on both ends. It was the kind of gorgeous, up-tempo, team-oriented basketball Banghart’s Princeton teams used to dominate the Ivy League, and now she has a roster with enough health, depth, and talent to let it really get cookin’ in Chapel Hill.
Let’s get into how the largest winning margin of the Coach Bang era came to be.
Remember the even distribution of scoring and passing that made everything flow so effortlessly in the Radford game? Turns out adding Stephanie Watts and Kennady Tucker (both of whom were held out of the opener due to injury concerns) into that mix just makes it better. Watts was a little shaky with her shooting touch, but everything else we saw in her first stint with the Heels was right there. Her speed, her handles, the passing acumen, the rebounding skills; they were all on full display. Steph finished with only four points on 2-8 shooting, but she logged three rebounds, four assists, and four steals. Honestly, just seeing her on the floor again was beautiful. Kennady didn’t score, but co-led the team in dimes (5) along with Deja Kelly, and it’s clear she’s matured as a floor general. She largely ran the offense when Deja was off the court and she was manipulating the defense and passing teammates open with confidence.
The rest of the offense was, somehow, even more prolific than in game one. Led by freshman Anya Poole’s 15 points, five Heels finished in double figures. (Janelle, Petra, Deja, and Ariel Young being the other four.) Petra’s 14 came primarily from deep (4-5 from three), and Deja was working every level with ease. Two specific highlights in a game full of ’em: as anyone who’s followed this team the past three seasons knows, Janelle began as a traditional big who has diligently expanded her game to include dribble-drives, long-range shooting, and an ever-expanding arsenal of crafty post moves. Today, she scored two of her 10 points on a turn-around, one-legged fall-away jumper which was just the latest example of us saying “wait she can do THAT now TOO????” It was, in a word, dope. The other: Deja is gonna be special, y’all, and while her 13 points draw the eye in the box score, there was an absolutely filthy break where she streaked up the left side of the floor and threw a one-handed cross-court laser to Steph who finished on a reverse layup. Kid’s got all the tools. One more thing: THESE. ARE. CAROLINA’S. SHOOTING. SPLITS. FROM. THIS. GAME. 56.3/45.0/83.3. And that’s *after* they cooled off in the second half.
Speaking of shooting splits, let’s talk about the defense. The Heels held UNCG to 18.2/14.8/73.3 on the day. To be clear: if you’re going to be a top-flight team in the ACC, you absolutely should be smothering a Southern Conference opponent like that, and the Spartans were missing some key offensive players, including last season’s leading scorer. Nonetheless, the defense was flying around, closing out on shooters, denying entry passes, busting plays, and in general doing nearly everything right. Tack on a 45-24 rebounding advantage and a 17-10 turnover differential in favor of the home team, and it explains why the final score was what it was, as well as the opponent only having 11 points and being down by 40 at the half. (One does imagine that those 10 Carolina turnovers were none to pleasing to Coach Bang and that’ll be a point of emphasis going forward.)
Overall, it was about as complete a performance as you could ask for. There was even more lineup experimentation, both to incorporate Watts and Tucker, and just trying new combinations in general. Once again, the depth and tinkering meant no one used up too much gas, with Deja leading the team with just 24 minutes played. That’s a particularly good thing, since the Heels have to turn around and host High Point at 1:00PM EST tomorrow. Having spread the playing time around reduces the possibility of being caught out on short rest, which is no small thing as we move into a compressed season that is bound to see plenty of scheduling changes and just general weirdness due to COVID. See y’all right back here tomorrow to recap the High Point game, and as always, GO HEELS!
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!
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.
The record is the last place you should look for indicators. 16-14, 7-11 in conference, it doesn’t mean much. Not in the scope of where this program is going in the Courtney Banghart era. This season was always going to be a haphazard affair; a transition period in more ways than one. Starting the season with half the bench unable to go. Thin depth. Three stalwarts trying to cohere with a freshman and a transfer as a starting five. This was never about the win-loss column. It was about a bigger, more existential question: where are we headed?
Start with looking at the little things. The benches have been moved. For the longest time, they were opposite of our season ticket seats near the corner of the basket closest to the pep band. But Coach has been quite adamant about one thing since she took the job, and said so very plainly the first time she went on the Carolina Insider podcast: student engagement is vital. She wants Carmichael to be like it used to, and like the Dean Dome is now for the men’s team: packed and delirious. It’s a tiny detail, but shifting the benches to the other side of the court, where the student section can see the personalities and celebrations and all the little rituals benches develop, might be a help towards that aim. She’s never said so directly, but I’d guess that’s why they were moved.
Then there’s what Banghart did tactically this year. The short bench hampered everything. For whatever reason, this year’s senior class has been snake-bit with injury luck since they set foot on campus. Your heart aches for Liv and Naomi, who saw so much less time on the court than they should have. For Em, who was playing brilliantly this year until she re-injured that leg. For Liz, deservedly given a scholarship prior to the season. But damn if Coach didn’t maximize what was available.
For starters, she took the restrictor plate off the offense. The Heels ran that four-out set with Tay on the low block and Janelle at the top of the key a ton because it was nearly a guaranteed two (or three) points. They let Janelle put the ball on the deck a little, too, because the same raw strength that lets her dominate in the post also allows her to drive to the rack with ferocity. They stopped doing a lot of the dribble-hand-off actions that defined past seasons and let Shayla play more intuitively at the point. They let Dino (who passed through Chapel Hill for one bright, amazing season like a comet) cook, because we haven’t had anyone that explosive and with that next-level caliber of sick handles since Latifah Coleman. Coach saw the strengths and weaknesses and maximized the former while ensuring the latter had minimal negative impact. Leah sniped with imperious efficiency from deep as she does. Lu just kept showing out more and more as her freshman season rolled along and she realized how special she was. Of her classmates coming off the bench, Kennady flashed some crafty handles and a nose for finding the rim off the bounce. Nia has a silky jumper and already knows how to find her spots on the floor. Lexi Duckett didn’t clock enough playing time to really get a feel for what she’s got, but she seemed to understand right away where to be on both ends and she can shoot as well.
I would have committed crimes to have a healthy Jaelynn this year. Not just for the difference she would have made in minutes totals, but for the lineup flexibility she would have given. A two-way explosive genius and unrelenting dawg of a player. God this team would have been spectacular with her in the fold.
Defensively, this year was insanely fun to watch. With Tay able to switch everything and Janelle being an absolute force, Carolina had plenty to work with. Shayla’s always had a keen instinct for jumping passing lanes, and she was undeniably ruthless this year. Lu got a crash course in the post on both ends when Janelle was hurt late in the season, and she’s got the same quick-twitch, double-jump instincts N’Dea Bryant had. And let’s take a minute to praise what ultimately ended in a loss but was one of the coolest things we saw this season. Nia and Kennady had showed themselves already to be incredible defenders. Great footwork and court awareness, active hands. Just fabulous. But late in the road game at Wake, things went to another level. We needed quick stops, so Coach unleashed them and Dino to run full-court traps on the Deacs. The ensuing possessions were like watching velociraptors hunt. It was awe-inspiring. Wake never knew what hit them. One final, unexpected surprise from Leah, who has always had a sense of her defensive limitations and known where to be on the floor: she figured out leverage this season. Not just positioning, but how exactly to place her compact frame on an opposing player in a way that best positions her to play Archimedes, maximizing her fulcrum of strength.
Overall, the takeaway has to be the joy and hope and the sense of purpose, of progress. From the players, from the crowd in Carmichael. Something imperceptibly shifted this year. Something was different. Our barn rocked a little harder, cheered a little louder whenever a player came out. The amplified fandom and buy-in manifested in a thousand tiny ways. Not the least of which was the aforementioned road game at Wake, where Deacs fans were forced to Hark The Sound Of Tar Heel Voices as we shouted them down in their own gym. There was a note of jubilation, of optimism, that hadn’t been there in a long while. Slowly, painstakingly, Courtney Banghart is building something. Something new and aspirational and shining and brilliant. Next year’s team will be very young but it brings the #11 recruiting class in the country into the mix with Janelle and Leah and the freshmen who showed such a vast swath of promise this year. Something great is coming. Soon.
To crib a college football concept, Bill Connelly often refers to a first-year coach taking over a team in extreme flux as “year zero.” Essentially, the first year is so chaotic that you can’t really gauge the barometer and just have to say next year will be the real “year one.” That seems about right for what Coach just negotiated. But there were flashes. Beating State to once again end their undefeated streak. Damn near beating Louisville. Even at the end of the season, with a roster full of dead legs and exhaustion, they never stopped. They never quit.
We’ve sat through six seasons as season ticket holders; some of our friends from Carmichael have sat through many more. But everyone is on the same uplifted and forward-looking page right now. We’d love this team no matter who was coaching, but Courtney Banghart has brought something to Chapel Hill. There’s a resonance in her presence, undefinable as yet but definitely there, pushing the Tar Heels towards something. It echoes. It matters. It sings and hears the reply. It Harks The Sound.
It’s been a rough couple of years for the Tar Heels. It’s hard to say when the decline started, but it was probably the NCAA’s announcement of a formal investigation into Carolina athletics. It lasted a while, and while no official hammer ever dropped, the prospect of a toothless, heavily-sanctioned team precipitated the transfers of multiple players, at least a few of whom are now playing in the WNBA. Compound that with a brutal rash of injury luck, and you have nonexistent depth and less talent than you’d like at any position. Certainly there were highs sandwiched into the overall lackluster. The Duke OT win in January of 2018. Knocking off Notre Dame and ending NC State’s unbeaten streak in Reynolds last season. Ultimately, the state of the program was not quite where anyone wanted it to be. The whole thing obviously came to a head with Sylvia Hatchell’s abrupt and ugly departure.
Hatchell was Carolina women’s basketball. A Hall-Of-Famer, 1,000+ game winner, and national champion. Her career is summed up in the banners hanging in Carmichael. We will likely never know exactly what went down with her resignation. I loved Coach. I think every fan of this team did. But then all of that happened. Where Hatchell’s departure, and its alleged causes are concerned, I just want to say this: talking about women’s college basketball means talking about young women (already a marginalized group in society), who are a majority African American (double down on the marginalization), female athletes (add a massive factorial of bias they have to deal with), and people beholden to the hulking edifice of the NCAA. (Cap it all off with way more neglect and marginalization.) You are talking about a population with virtually zero power or agency staring into the face of a million reasons to keep their heads down and just play ball. If they raise their voices to tell you some bad sh*t went down, you should believe them.
And maybe all of that bled into all of the other problems and created something worse. And then some necessary changes happened. And then we’re here.
The season is young so far, but new head coach Courtney Banghart has things tilted in a different direction.
The first thing you notice is the joy. This team just feels like they love playing with and for each other. You can see it in three or four other players rushing over to pick up a teammate who hit the deck. You can see collective self-reinforcement and a we’ll get it next time comportment after a play didn’t quite work, as opposed to heads hanging low and glowering expressions. Somewhere, somehow, something in the ethos has shifted. There is a lightness to this team, a certain weightless jubilation, and it’s really quite something to see.
The vibe is good, but there are also notable tactical alterations. Banghart’s offense zips the ball around, relying on cuts and spacing. It’s not surprising for anyone who watched her brilliant Princeton teams, but it does make for a different dynamic than the dribble handoffs that initiated much of the offense previously. The operation is not perfect right now. The veterans on the team are adjusting to the new scheme, and the freshman are still figuring out how to play at this level, period. But it’s a start. One that has produced beautiful results so far, small sample size and non-ACC competition level aside.
On the other end of the floor, the defense is flying around. They are disciplined and tight and playing with fury. Five pairs of bent knees and arms spread out to cut off passing lanes on every possession. It all looks so different; so much more focused.
The whole overall effect is startling and dynamic and full of promise. Banghart has transformed this team.
Isostatic rebound is a geological term. It’s what happens when a glacier recedes from a patch of land and that land actually regains topographic elevation now that the weight of the ice is lifted. The burdens of unfathomably dense minerals and time have been removed, and the earth pushes back up towards a slightly higher plane.
It’s early. We don’t know what any of this is building towards. But every indicator so far says this is going to resonate and continue. From the bleachers in Carmichael, watching the new-look Tar Heels, you can almost feel your seat vibrate a little in sympathy. Like the whole barn, and everyone in it, is slowly but inexorably moving to higher ground.
Dearly beloved, friends, neighbors, Tar Heels the world over: this is a website dedicated to the love, coverage, and celebration of all things UNC Women’s Basketball. This being our inaugural post, some introductions are in order.
My name is Travis. Most of the writing you read here will be mine. Basketball has been my favorite sport since I was old enough to know what sports were, and I’ve been in love with women’s hoops ever since I was fortunate enough to watch the 1996 Olympic Team live and in person when I was a teenager in Atlanta. I’ve written a general sports blog since 2011, and last season I covered the ACC for Women’s Hoops World. I’m a diehard Atlanta Dream fan, but I never had a D1 college rooting interest until I moved to Chapel Hill.
I moved here for my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Aggie. Aggie is pure genius with a camera and all of the photos you’ll see here will be her work. She grew up in a family of rabid Tar Heel fans (and is a third generation Heel herself), and carries an encyclopedic memory of all things Carolina athletics going back nearly four decades. She’s been shooting bands and sports for a long time, and her eye trains on angles and details that don’t so much capture the moment as put you on the stage or the field or the court. She can also eviscerate a ref from the stands more precisely and hilariously than any other human on earth.
How this came to be: we’ve had season tickets since the 2014-15 season. In that time, we have lived and died with this team more completely than any of our other sports rooting interests. We talk about the players like they’re our friends. We’ve cried, we’ve screamed our throats raw, we’ve clocked what felt like whole lifetimes through roller-coaster games in Carmichael. And we wanted to share that passion and heartache and joy with anyone out there who cares to come along with us. In short, this site will be powered by love.
(Note: We meant to have this operation up and humming before the season tipped off, but my grandfather, the last living grandparent either of us had left, passed away shortly before that and things just … spiraled. But we’re here now.)
What we hope this will be: this is all something of an experiment. We’re going to try and replicate some of our favorite sports internet work here, and the things we gravitate to tend towards the eccentric. If you’re reading this, we assume you already read goheels.com for your previews and gamers and the like. There will be some of that here as well, along with analytics-based pieces (I am a huge nerd) and big-picture stuff about where the Heels are in the ACC and/or the national landscape. If we can wrangle it further down the line, hopefully some features on players, coaches, etc, as well. What we’re really after, though, is something in between Swish Appeal (if you like women’s basketball and don’t read them, you should fix that right now) and what Banner Society is for college football. A way to love this team and process the game that is broad, slightly silly, esoteric, and hopefully insightful and meaningful. We want to bring you good work, but also fun and irreverence. We want this project to amble off in unexpected directions from time to time. We’re going to take some big swings. We’ll probably screw a few of them up, but we beg your forgiveness in advance and hope you’ll stick around.
Welcome to Rally ‘Round The Well, y’all, cheer our Tar Heel teams like hell. Let’s have some fun.