First of all, forgive me (us) for being so late to the punch on these two extremely noteworthy things: it’s been a busy weekend for Tar Heel sports, and most of our writers just couldn’t get collected enough to cover them until now. That said, how about this past week for UNC sports, huh? Pretty much as men’s basketball were netting a win against Duke after coming up empty against them in 2020, Courtney Banghart’s women’s basketball team was burying a top-5-ranked N.C. State team, marking the 2nd year in her two-year tenure that she’s beaten, and beaten soundly, a State team that by ranking and record she should have had no right beating. And, going to a different kind of court, UNC’s women’s tennis team made history by becoming back-to-back champions at the ITA National Women’s Indoor D1 Championship. It was the first time UNC has ever gone back-to-back at the event, and the first time anybody has won back-to-back since Northwestern in 2009-10. A quick recap of each:
UNC 76, #4 NCSU 69
This season for UNC’s women’s team has been a little up and down, as coach Courtney Banghart, in her second year, is still working to really make this team hers. Notably, both this season and last, the team has had a bit of a stamina problem, a consequence of Banghart’s style of play requiring a lot more running at all five positions, on offense and defense, than the previous coach’s preferred style later in her career. Last year, after starting out the season looking really exciting (including wins over top-10 Notre Dame and N.C. State teams), the team fizzled out down the stretch, losing their last 8 or so games and ending up near the ACC’s cellar. This year, they’ve been more consistently inconsistent, so to speak, winning some great games but also laying a few rotten eggs, as they did last Monday against Florida State (man, what is it about UNC teams playing FSU this year?) in a 61-51 loss where the whole team could not find the basket. The team is 4-8 in the ACC, but that’s in large part because the Heels have really struggled on the road; they haven’t won a league game away from Carmichael yet in 5 tries.
At home, though, they can dazzle, and that’s exactly what they did against the #4 Wolfpack. Alyssa Utsby, who’s been an incredible do-it-all sixth woman for the Heels, was pressed into starting duty because of an injury to Malu Tshitenge, and she absolutely shone with 20 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals, going 8-10 from the floor and 4-4 from three-point range. Stephanie Watts also starred, with 17 points on 4/12 shooting and 9 boards, and fellow graduate student Petra Holešínská scored 15 on 6/13 shooting, including 3/7 from long range. Despite all that, the real story of the game was the Heels dominating the fourth quarter, which has been a problem time for them all season (read this from GoHeels for more). Trailing by 3 entering the last 10 minutes of the game, UNC dominated the final frame, 27-17, behind 5/7 shooting from distance, including threes to open it up from Holešínská and Kennedy Todd-Williams, and 10/12 shooting from the free-throw line to ice things up. They also played great defense on NC State guard Jakie Brown-Turner, who’s one of the best scorers in the conference, making her shoot 4/16 from the floor for just 9 points (she averages 43% for 14). The Heels’ next game is a trip to Pittsburgh on Sunday, and maybe this big win will help them shake off their road woes.
UNC Women’s Tennis 4, Texas 3
While the basketball Heels have been finding their footing the past couple of seasons, UNC women’s tennis have been simply dominating the game. They won the ITA Indoor Championship last year, were undefeated through 18 matches before COVID-19 cancelled their 2020 season, and Sara Daavettila became just the second Heel, after the legendary Jamie Loeb, to win the ITA Singles Championship in late 2019. This one is starting out just as hot, with a 7-0 start to the season, an easy #1 ranking in the polls, and another ITA Indoor crown. If the team wanted to show us all what last season could have looked like, they’re doing an excellent job so far.
UNC rolled through the 8-team Championship bracket en route to their 7th (!!) straight finals appearance, first beating Ohio State 4-0 with wins by Daavettila (ranked #4 in the country) at #2, Alexa Graham (ranked #3) at #1, and Elizabeth Scotty at #4 as well as winning the doubles point with wins on Courts 2 (with Scotty on the #2 doubles team as well) and 3 (for those who don’t know, college tennis matchups are best-of-seven-points: one point for winning 2 out of the three doubles matches, which are played first, and then one point for each singles match. It’s not uncommon for a doubles match and 1-3 singles matches to have been unfinished). They then ran through Pepperdine 4-1, with Scotty losing a singles match but winning again as part of the #2 doubles team, joining #3 again to give UNC the doubles point before the Heels took the match with wins on Courts 3, 5, and 6.
Texas, though, put up a fight. They took the doubles point with a win against UNC’s top pair of Daavettila and Graham (who hadn’t been playing doubles together in the other matches, but were ranked #3 in the country as a duo) to go with a win on #3, but then UNC’s leaders shifted momentum, with Daavettila taking Court 1 this time and beating Texas freshman Peyton Stearns in straight sets and Graham knocking out Lulu Sun 6-3, 6-2 to give the points advantage to the Heels. Court 5 went to Texas, tying it up at 2-2, and then Courts 3 and 6 were split between the teams, leaving it to the sophomore Scotty against Charlotte Chavatipon to decide this year’s champion. After a long battle, Scotty outlasted her opponent, winning her match 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-2, and the Heels were victorious. It was UNC’s fifth indoor title, which ranks 3rd behind Florida and Stanford, and all of them have come since 2013, which is wild. UNC has been putting together a downright juggernaut of a program since the 2010’s.
Both teams deserve congratulations, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do to close out one season nearing its end (basketball) and take a nascent, brilliant season as far as it can go.