This season the ACC has seen the reemergence of the longtime Triangle rivalry between the three largest North Carolina basketball schools: No. 9 Duke, No. 14 North Carolina and No. 22 NC State.
Who comes out on top when all is said and done has yet to be determined, but it is the veteran-laden Tar Heels who have the advantage so far. They are the only team of the triad to have beaten the other two.
Both victories were a part of an eight-game winning streak that extended from Jan. 8-Feb. 2. This followed a four-game losing streak that was a surprise after a strong season start. And with ACC play being more contentious than ever this year, North Carolina is in fifth place at the moment, with an 8-4 record.
But as fourth-year head coach Courtney Banghart and her team showed last year when they finished 25-7 and advanced to the Sweet 16, the rebuild is real.
Three catalysts for the turnaround have been leading scorers Deja Kelly (15.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game), Kennedy Todd-Williams (13.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game) and Alyssa Ustby (13.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, two steals and 1.3 blocks per game).
Three other key players include Paulina Paris (6.8 points and 1.2 steals per game), Destiny Adams (4.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.7 steals and one block per game) and Anya Poole (5.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 0.7 blocks per game).
The team has been successful this year in large part thanks to their growth. Eight of the Tar Heels’ 12 players are upperclassmen, and their maturity and experience has allowed them to be able to play their game at the highest level possible. So far, they have scored the eighth-most points, and have allowed the fifth-fewest points in the ACC.
“Every year is really different,” Banghart said. “Literally, every year is different, even if a lot of the team is the same because their roles are different, but the standard is the same and that is to care about what you bring and care about the team’s success.”
During their win streak, they only allowed at least 60 points once and scored at least 70 points four times. They were able to hold Notre Dame, a team that is averaging 77 points, to just 50 points in the first win of the streak, and they dropped 61 on the Blue Devils, who have only allowed an average of 51.7 points and hadn’t allowed a single conference opponent to score 60 until that point.
“We’re just very gritty and tough,” Todd-Williams said. “Nothing can really phase us. We’re all very special in a way because we all have our piece and our piece is very different from each other, which is very fortunate as a team…we have that fierce competitiveness and we want to win, so every night, they’re going to get our best.”
That moxie comes from their intense practices, which haven’t stopped since they began last June. On offense, North Carolina always work on getting better with their ball movement, as Ustby sees the nuance of basketball as learning how to move together.
Their offensive philosophy is to always share the ball and give each other open shots. Since four of the five starters this season are juniors, they are well-aware of the sweet spots that each of them thrive in. In the ACC, the Tar Heels are eighth in field goal percentage at 42.2 percent and sixth from three, at 32.1 percent. Banghart wants her team to shoot the ball better if they want to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re defending really well, but we’re not shooting it well enough to take more pressure off of our defense,” she said.
Banghart has the group focused on themselves and just how they can make each other better in order to meet expectations. Players are always communicating with each other in practice, and giving and receiving constructive criticism.
“We’ve been able to lay a foundation as a team that we are all coming from a place of love and a place from ‘how do we get this team where we want to go?’ and that’s being able to accept feedback and being able to make changes within the lines and not letting your emotions get the best of you and that’s just how we’ve been able to get the best out of everybody this year,” Ustby said.
This kind of communication has lead to off-court bonds, as athletes eat and study together. Banghart had particular praise for Kelly, Ustby and Todd-Williams and how they conduct themselves, both as players and people.
“They care about their individual play,” Banghart said. “They care even more about our team performance. They’re consistent. They put the time in. They watch film. They’re growing as leaders. They’ve been a huge part of our program since day one and I’m just so thrilled that they’re Tar Heels.”
In preparation for their eventual victory over Virginia last week, Kelly spent a good portion of practice their preceding in a film study meeting looking over different ways to be better defensively. It resulted in a 73-62 win where she went for 13 points, five rebounds and two assists in 35 minutes on 44.4 percent shooting.
There are currently six games left to go in the regular season for North Carolina, evenly split between the road and home. Two of those road games will be rematches against their two Triangle rivals 10 days apart, on Feb. 16 and Feb. 26, respectively.
Injuries could potentially be a factor for the Tar Heels, as starter Eva Hodgson is projected to be out for another two weeks with an upper-body injury, and it is currently unknown when Ustby will return after being out during Sunday’s loss to Louisville with a lower-body injury. However, they did receive a boost when redshirt freshman Kayla McPherson returned two weeks ago, and played in the last three games after missing the first two months of play.
“It’s a long season,” Banghart said. “You have to continue to figure out where your holes are. You have to figure out what you’re good at. You have to continue to grow. You have to stay healthy. We still have a lot of basketball left to be played.”
Their goal is to go farther than they did last year in the NCAA Tournament, but the path there goes through the ACC Tournament, March 1-5 in nearby Greensboro. Players see it as a great advantage, as they draw great crowds to their games. Kelly, in particular, takes pride in the fact that large crowds have helped bring the program back to national prominence.
“My goal personally when I came to Carolina was just to leave my mark and be a presence and try to be amongst the other legends that came through here…we’re definitely leaving our mark and we’re having fun while doing so, but we have a lot more work to do,” Kelly said.
The Tar Heels take on Syracuse tonight.