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.


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!!!

Post Game: UNCG

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!

Postgame: Radford

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!