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UNC Basketball: Women’s team on the way back

After two down years, UNC is getting back to prominence.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Grambling State vs North Carolina Jeffrey A. Camarati-USA TODAY Sports

Common wisdom seemed to be that UNC women’s basketball was the team hardest hit by the NCAA investigation. Men’s basketball definitely lost some recruits, but also managed to put together a national championship team in that time. Football went to an ACC Championship Game. Women’s basketball was named quite a bit in the reports, and it had a pretty big impact.

They went 26-9 in 2014-15 and reached the Sweet 16 as a #4 seed before losing to South Carolina by two. In the two seasons after that, they won 29 games combined, finishing with a losing record each time. Only five of nine non-seniors returned for the 15-16 season. They won just seven conference games, and one ACC Tournament game in those two years.

Flash forward to Sunday, and this happened.

UNC rallied from 19 down to beat 15th-ranked Duke 92-86 in overtime to improve to 14-6 and 4-3 in the conference. In addition to making that three, Kea finished with 36 points, while Jamie Cherry went for 22 and 13 assists. Following the win, the Tar Heels showed up in the discussion in ESPN’s women’s tournament bracketology. After a couple down years, UNC looks to be on the road back to the team they were before the NCAA stuff.

In addition to the win over Duke, the Tar Heels recorded wins over Minnesota and Washington in their non-conference schedule. Notably, coach Sylvia Hatchell got her 1000th win when they beat Grambling on December 19th. The four conference wins already match their best total from the two previous years, and they still have nine conference games left.

They’ve been led by Kea, who puts up solid numbers in nearly every category. In addition to going for over 19 points per game, she also averages 6 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 2.5 steals a game. Meanwhile, Cherry goes for 16.4, 4.2, 3.6, and 2.3 in those same categories. Add in star freshman forward Janelle Bailey, who averages 15.2 points and 8.9 rebounds, and you have three of the top 15 scorers in the ACC.

None of this is to say that UNC is a surefire NCAA Tournament team this year. If they stay in the conversation, their losses to Hampton and South Alabama may not look great. Not to mention, the ACC is loaded and seven of their nine games left are against projected NCAA Tournament teams.

The remainder of that schedule could definitely keep the Tar Heels from another NCAA Tournament. Of course, the flip side of that is that if they win a few of those games, suddenly their resume looks really good.

No matter what happens, the Tar Heels have a lot to play for heading into February and March, which hasn’t exactly been the case over the past two years. Now, however, the program looks on the way back to the annual NCAAT contender they were for many years.