We haven’t updated y’all in a while on the status of the UNC Women’s basketball team, and that’s our bad. But they’ve been chugging along, making marked improvements as the season went on after a really tough start to ACC play, and played their way into being a lock for the NCAA Tournament regardless of how their ACC Tournament went. That was good, because they lost a tough game in their opening round to a game Wake Forest squad, but didn’t have to agonize about Selection Monday because of it. For the first time since 2019, the Heels are in the NCAA Tournament, and it will be Coach Courtney Banghart’s first Big Dance with the Heels. This will be UNC’s 28th tournament berth, which leads the ACC.
But the Heels were one of the last four teams in, according to the selection committee, prompting Banghart to sound off on the process: “You look at your team’s readiness by looking at quality wins and bad losses and I think when you look at our quality wins, versus our bad losses, it wasn’t at all a bubble [situation] in my opinion,” she said, according to this article from the Tar Heel Tribune. Who knows if she’s right (ESPN’s Bracketology had UNC’s position pretty much nailed the day before, for what that’s worth), but the reality is that the Heels will be traveling to San Antonio, where the women’s tournament bubble (college wubble?) will take place, as a #10 seed and play #7 Alabama in the first round. The winner of that game will play against the Hemisfair Region’s (all the women’s regions this year are named after San Antonio landmarks) #2 seed, Maryland, assuming they win their first-round matchup against #15 Mount St Mary’s. Maryland is probably the strongest #2 seed in the field, pretty comparable to the region’s #1 seed, South Carolina. That said, this UNC team managed a convincing win against N.C. State this season, so they and we know they can play with anybody when everything clicks. You can view the rest of the bracket here.
The Heels have been hot lately after they switched to a four-guard lineup with do-it-all freshman Alyssa Utsby into the lineup instead of the rotation of bigs that included Kennedy Todd-Williams, Malu Tshitenge, and Anya Poole. That’s allowed them to space the floor a lot better without giving up a ton on the rebounding end, and has also given Janelle Bailey, the Heels’ stalwart center, room to work one-on-one inside, where she thrives. What’s really brought on the hot streak that has led to 5 wins in the past 7 games, though, is the improved play of Deja Kelly. Much like Caleb Love on the men’s side, Kelly’s spent a big part of her freshman season re-learning how to play lead guard at the college level. She showed flashes of her incredible scoring prowess and ability to break defenses down with speed and pressure throughout, but she was inconsistent, a promising shot wasn’t falling regularly enough, and she was prone to turnovers. In the past 7 games, though, she’s started turning it on, playing smart basketball and exploding as a scorer. In UNC’s last 4 regular-season games, she averaged almost 20 points and totaled 15 assists, running the offense efficiently and effectively. She struggled a little in that Wake Forest game, but she’s trending up generally, and when she’s good, the Heels are really good.
UNC is a pretty balanced team offensively, though; all five starters average over 10 points per game. Bailey leads at 13.5, then sharpshooter Petra Holesinska is at 12.2, then Kelly and Stephanie Watts average 11.2, and Utsby averages an even 10. Watts and Utsby are the team’s key defenders; aside from averaging better than 5 rebounds a game to finish off possessions, both average almost 2 steals per game (nobody else on the roster averages over 1) and block way more shots than any other guard on the roster, and more than Bailey to boot. Watts leads the team in steals and assists and is second in blocks and rebounds in addition to her scoring: she’s the lynchpin for this team, even though Kelly might be its primary engine. Her return has been incredible for the Heels.
They’ve got a fun first-round matchup with Alabama, who started hot but petered out late in the season. They do have one of the country’s premier bigs in Jasmine Walker, who averages over 19 points per game and is a Katrina McClain Award finalist for the nation’s best power forward. UNC’s been pretty good at making opposing bigs uncomfortable, most notably N.C. State’s Elissa Cunane, so they’ll need to bring exactly that energy to have a shot against the Crimson Tide. The Heels will play at noon next Monday (March 22nd) on ESPN. We’ll have more on this game when we get there.