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North Carolina: journeying back?

Paris Kea runs the fast break up court. Photo by Agatha Donkar Lund.
Paris Kea runs the fast break up court. Photo by Agatha Donkar Lund.

The past few seasons for North Carolina have been a long, straggling journey through tough times.

Plagued by a rash of injuries at key positions, the Tar Heels have typically entered the back half of the year with too many tired legs to play their preferred brand of up-tempo, fast-break basketball. The result has been an unaccustomed trough for the program, which finished the 2017-18 season ranked 118th in RPI.

In 2018, however, they enter the season with a mostly-healthy roster, and appear ready to make a run back to a potential top 25 ranking. Sylvia Hatchell, now in her 33rd year as coach of the program, said she is optimistic.

“This year, I think we’re back to being what Carolina Women’s Basketball has a reputation for,” Hatchell said.

North Carolina finished last season with a 15-16 overall record, going just 4-12 in conference play. They went a respectable 11-8 and 3-1 at home and neutral site games, respectively, but struggled mightily in true road contests, going 1-7. They finished the year tied with Holy Cross at 203rd in Division I for scoring margin, and 89th in assist/turnover ratio. This was out of character for a team and coach whose style is predicated on running the floor and making smart passes.

With three-year starting point guard Jamie Cherry having graduated, it might seem that those kinds of struggles were poised to continue as the offense adjusts to a new primary initiator. But Hatchell doesn’t see it that way.

“We’re so different from last year, it’s just light years,” she said. “We’ve come two or three levels.”

That leveling up starts with redshirt senior guard Paris Kea. The Vanderbilt transfer from Greensboro, N.C. was electric last season, averaging 19.4 points and 4.8 assists per game – good for third in both categories among ACC players. Kea has already been named a preseason Third-Team All-American by Street & Smith’s, voted into the preseason All-ACC team for the second year running, and has been tabbed to the Nancy Lieberman Award watch list as one of the top point guards in the nation. With Kea at the helm, look for a well-calibrated and explosive offense.

She won’t be alone in back-court talent, either. Stephanie Watts, the 2016 ACC Freshman of the Year whose sophomore campaign saw an eye-popping 16.8ppg with 7.2 boards and 2.2 assists, returns after spending last season on the bench with an injury. Throw in juniors Taylor Koenen (who enjoyed a breakout sophomore season last year as a versatile force on both ends of the floor) and Destinee Walker (also returning from injury and not fully healthy yet but put up 12.4/3.7/2.0 stats two years ago), and the Heels have a formidable guard rotation capable of hanging with just about anyone.

Then there is freshman Claudia Dickey. The two-sport standout is currently in the middle of a sensational debut year at goalie with the soccer team, and is expected to be added to the basketball roster Dec. 1.

Janelle Bailey rips down a rebound. Photo by Agatha Donkar Lund.

No team can survive on perimeter play alone, however, so enter sophomore center Janelle Bailey. The 2018 ACC Freshman of the Year averaged 15.3 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks a game last season, and joins Kea in elite company.

“Notre Dame and us were the only two teams who had two or more players on the preseason First Team All-ACC,” Hatchell said.

Bailey is already a terror in the post at both ends, but apparently those were merely hints of her true ceiling last year.

“Janelle has expanded her game,” Hatchell said. “She’s shooting threes. And makin’ ’em! She’s got a face up game now.”

Jaelynn Murray prepares for the tipoff against Duke. Agatha Donkar Lund.

Bailey’s front-court running mates will include explosive and springy forward Jaelynn Murray, whose athleticism Hatchell says will be amplified by the up-tempo game her squad is trying to get back to. With junior Emily Sullivan out for the year after shoulder surgery, freshman forward Hunter West, who averaged 23 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 5.8 blocks as a high school senior, may be called upon to contribute early. Also look for veteran center Naomi Van Ness to provide solid rotation minutes.

Hatchell said her team is playing high-octane hoops in their first few weeks of practice.

“They love it,” she said. “They’re flying up and down the court and fast breaking, (using) different combinations and traps on defense. They’re having a great time in practice. They’re having fun. They love this.”

The Tar Heels’ schedule starts heavy on road games (six of their first eight: at Elon, at Colorado, games against UCLA, USF and Kentucky in the Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam, and a trip to Ohio State for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge), so the team’s endurance and ability to keep up that tempo will be tested early. Hatchell, however, is confident they’re up to the challenge, and quite possibly much more than that.

“As long as we just stay healthy, I think we’re gonna surprise a lot of people,” she said. “This group’s going to be – they could be – very special.”

North Carolina opens the 2018-19 season at Elon’s brand new Schar Center at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 6.

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