It’s not ALL bad news on the hardwood. While the men’s squad has struggled out of the gate, especially offensively, the women’s basketball team under the direction of new head coach Courtney Banghart have stormed out to an 8-0 record and are on the cusp of returning to the Top 25. With ACC play and a particularly challenging stretch of schedule not far away, let’s check in with the lady Tar Heels.
The 2019 season, the last under Sylvia Hatchell, ended in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with a loss to Cal. The Heels finished 18-15 on the season and 8-8 in the ACC, though they recorded two wins over top ten teams to make it into the Big Dance. The offseason saw many departures, not just in terms of staff but also of roster. Leading scorer Paris Kea was lost to graduation and the trio of Stephanie Watts, Destinee Walker, and Jocelyn Jones all transferred. Watts, a starter, was a particular loss as she had been ACC Freshman of the Year just two years earlier.
Returning for the Heels, however, were Janelle Bailey, Taylor Koenen, and Shayla Bennett, all of whom have been major contributors to this year’s team. Bailey leads the team in points and rebounds with 17.1 and 9.6 per game, while Koenen adds 14.8 ppg and 7.0 rpg. Bennett, the floor leader and a senior captain, paces the offense with 11.5 ppg and 5.8 apg.
Joining those three returnees in the starting lineup are two new faces. One of those players is Madinah Muhammad, a redshirt junior on her first year of eligibility after transferring from Mississippi State in 2018. She had to sit out last season, but she is now averaging 14 points a night and leading the team in made three-point baskets. Rounding out the starters is freshman forward Malu Tshitenge, who is tallying 12.9 ppg and 9.1 rpg on 58% shooting, by far the best on the team.
UNC routed Illinois 85-60 on Thursday in Chapel Hill to win their ACC/Big 10 Challenge matchup behind a fantastic performance by Koenen, who had 23 points and 11 boards on 10-16 shooting. UNC followed it up with an easy 92-53 win over NC Central on Sunday, thanks to 19 points from Bailey and 22 forced turnovers.
The real high noon moment for Carolina comes in mid-January, when the Heels will face Florida State, NC State, and Louisville (all currently ranked in the top 10) in a ten-day span. This was the point last season that proved rocky for last year’s Heels, who dropped four out of five (two losses coming to the Noles and Cardinals) and fell in the ACC Standings. This team looks new and improved and to get a key win in any of those match-ups would go a long way towards making UNC’s season.
Carolina’s next matchup will be against the Alabama Crimson Tide on December 15th in Tuscaloosa.