You’d be forgiven for having been caught up in the world of men’s college basketball this past week as the sport’s 2020-21 season began, with a bunch of big-time upsets and even more underdogs coming real close (Coppin State, you just needed a little more!). But the women’s side of the sport got started last week, too, and the Tar Heels, in Coach Courtney Banghart’s second year, have already seen a fair bit of action. In their 3 games, all wins, between the 25th and 29th, the Heels have already given us a glimpse of what they’re going to offer as the season continues.
The Heels’ wins have come against Radford, UNCG, and High Point, and they’ve won comfortably in all three: Respectively, the scores of the games were 90-61, 96-35, and 95-70. Those scores don’t always go with the flow of the games (more on that in a bit), but they do show that these Heels can score in bunches, and tighten up on D when needed. The UNC roster is pretty significantly revamped from last year: after the graduations of Taylor Koenen, Madinah Muhammad, Shayla Bennett, and Naomi Van Nes and the transfers of Leah Church and Emily Sullivan, Banghart filled those holes by bringing in graduate transfers Petra Holesinska (apologies for my inability to use the right characters for her name) and Stephanie Watts (making a homecoming to the place where she started her college career) and a loaded 5-woman recruiting class. With a roster that looks more like Banghart’s than that of the previous regime, the team looks to have a lot more offensive identity than it did last year, and they’ve been really fun to watch.
A lot of the new additions have been making their mark on the Heels early. First-year guards Deja Kelly and Kennedy Todd-Williams have been seriously impressive right out of the gate: Kelly hasn’t quite been as efficient as you’d like as a scorer and struggled a ton against High Point, but her feel for the game has been obvious, she leads the team in assists after 3 games, and she’s looked awfully poised for a first-year pressed into starting duty in this, of all seasons. Todd-Williams, starting beside her in the backcourt, has been really impressive around the basket for a guard, averaging 5 rebounds per game and showing skill as a slasher. Anya Poole, a frontcourt player, has scored in double figures all three games in less than 20 minutes per game. Alyssa Utsby, backing up Kelly and Todd-Williams, has put up numbers as well, with her 15 points and 11 rebounds against High Point leading a comeback from 21 down. As for the graduate transfers: Holesinska, brought in as a sharpshooter, has been exactly that, hitting 10 of her 18 attempts from deep and leading the team in scoring. And Watts, coming back to Carmichael Arena after having transferred away from the previous coaching staff, returned from an injury that kept her out of the first game to average 12.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4.5 steals in the two she’s played. She also did this against High Point:
But the team’s returners have been pretty great as well. Perennial Lisa Leslie award contender Janelle Bailey has been as rock-solid as ever, averaging 7.7 rebounds per game to go with her 11.7 points. She’s been inches away from a double-double each game so far. Her starting partner in the frontcourt, Malu Tshitenge, has also been solid, though outplayed by Poole. Overall, the team has shown that it’s extremely deep and extremely balanced. While this will surely change with tougher competition, right now, Banghart has 11 players playing more than 10 minutes per game and 7 players scoring at least 9 points per game.
And now to the games themselves: The first two games of the season pretty much served as a showcase for how offensively gifted this team is, as the results were never in doubt after each first quarter: The Heels led 28-12 against Radford after 10, and 25-6 against UNCG. The balanced offense meant that different players have gotten to shine each game. While Holesinska has been lighting everybody up, in the first game it was Kelly leading the team with 19 points, the next game it was Poole with 15 (one of 5 players with double figures). They relentlessly scored, rebounded, and made opposing offenses uncomfortable, leading to the final scores above.
High Point was a little different. No doubt a little tired, as so many teams have been after 3 games in short order to start this season, the Heels started the game extremely sluggish, going down early 17-2, finishing the first quarter down 32-14, and facing a deficit of 21 before starting to get their legs under them. With Watts’ leadership and on-court excellence (21 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 steals), the Heels surged to come back, eventually taking a lead at 58-55 and dominating from there. As Banghart said after the game, “Thank God for veterans,” including Watts, Holesinska, and Bailey, who was one of three Heels with 15 points in the game, in her specific call-outs for reasons the Heels were able to settle down and claim the 2nd-biggest comeback in ACC history.
The Heels will host two more local-ish opponents (Charlotte and South Carolina State) this week before conference play starts on December 10th, and they are expected to be a little noisier in the conference than they were last year, when they showed some fire early but lost steam towards the end of the season — some writers have picked them to finish as high as fourth in a conference with two national title contenders. If the Heels can keep scoring like this and keeping their opponents down, combined with having already passed one test with flying colors, they might live up to or exceed those expectations. We’ll be sure to keep you posted as their season continues.