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UNC Basketball: Tar Heel women are back in the big dance

Sylvia Hatchell’s team are the #9 seed in the Greensboro Region.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament - Notre Dame vs UNC Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

After a four-year absence, UNC women’s basketball is back in the NCAA Tournament.

The Tar Heels (18-14) were given the #9 seed in the Greensboro Region, and will take on #8 Cal in Waco, Texas on Saturday at 3:30 PM ET. Should they win, #1 seeded Baylor team will likely await them in the second round.

It’s been a tough four years for the women’s team since their trip to the Sweet 16 in 2015. Women’s basketball was likely the program hardest hit by the NCAA investigation, and several key members of that team transferred in the aftermath of that run. They went from 26 wins in 2014-15 to just 29 combined in the next two seasons.

There were signs that things were getting back on track last season. While the Tar Heels still finished below .500 last year, they showed flashes that things were on the upswing. Sylvia Hatchell won her 1000th game in December. A couple weeks later, Paris Kea dropped 36 in an overtime win over Duke, their first win against the Blue Devils since March 2014. They slid down the stretch to take them out of contention, but at one point, last year’s Heels were a borderline bubble team.

This year was even more of a step forward for Hatchell’s team. They played Louisville and Florida State close early in conference play, but lost both by a combined eight points. The Heels finally got their big win on January 27th, when they took down then #1 Notre Dame at home. A week later, they followed that up with a win at NC State, handing the Wolfpack their first loss of the season.

While Kea gets a lot of headlines, this year’s Carolina team is fairly balanced. Four different Heels average double digit points. While Kea leads the way at 17.1, center Janelle Bailey is right there with 16.7 points and 8.9 rebounds per game. There’s also guard Stephanie Watts, who has put up 15.2 points per game this year, while shooting 37% from three.

On the strength of their two big wins and a solid season in a really tough ACC, UNC received an at large bid and are headed to the tournament for the first time since 2015. Their first round opponent, Cal, come in with a fairly similar résumé. The Golden Bears have a couple really good wins, with their best coming against Stanford.

Bailey and the UNC frontcourt will have a tough task on her hands with Cal’s Kristie Anigwe. The forward averages 22.9 points and 16.3 rebounds per game on the year, including a 25 and 24 effort in the aforementioned Stanford win.

Should they win that game, a game against Baylor at Baylor awaits. The former national champions are a #1 seed for a reason, and come in with a 31-1 record, so that would be a tough task. However, the Tar Heels already have a couple top ten wins this season, so count them out at your own risk.

Before the NCAA investigation, the Tar Heels were a regular tournament team, and had made at least the Sweet 16 in six of the ten years from 2006-15. While this year’s team probably isn’t quite on the level of a potential Final Four team, it’s nice to have them back making some noise in March.