Deacs Recap: The First Loss Is The Deepest.

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!!!

Where We’re Going

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.