Courtney Banghart’s tenure as UNC’s women’s basketball coach has been marked so far by fun teams that play tenacious defense and are offensively at times inconsistent, but more than capable and certainly good enough to place them regularly in the tier of women’s basketball teams right below the obvious title contenders. It’s been impressive how quickly she turned around a program that had been spiraling before she arrived, making liberal use of the transfer portal and building that consistency even through pretty significant roster turnover over her first two offseasons. Through it all, though, her first recruiting class has been the heartbeat of her team, and now, in their senior season, the Heels look to take a leap from a program that threatens the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament into a program that threatens to win it all.
Anything about this team’s roster has to start with the two senior starters, Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby. Kelly has started in the Tar Heel backcourt basically since she got to UNC, and last year took on more on-ball responsibilities to mostly positive results. She led UNC in scoring with 16.5 points per game, relying on her deadly midrange shot and ability to get to the rim, and in assists, with 3.2 per game. Her shooting did take a dive; she went from being a 37/36/86 shooter as a sophomore to a 40/28/72 shooter as a junior. She’s an incredibly capable scorer, and hopefully a year of experience as a primary ballhandler, as well as the experience of playing for Team USA at the FIBA Women’s AmeriCup this summer, helps her pick back up those shooting numbers so she can be a truly lethal scorer as a senior. Ustby, since inserting her way into the UNC starting lineup midway through her first year, has been an incredible do-everything wing for the Heels. Last year, she led the Heels in rebounding (from the wing!), steals, and blocks, while coming in second in assists to Kelly and third in scoring to Kelly and Kennedy Todd-Williams, who transferred this offseason to Ole Miss. We know what to expect from her: awesome wing defense, rebounding, and offensive connectivity, marked by her patented jump shot spinning over her left shoulder in the post.
After Todd-Williams’ departure and Eva Hodgson’s graduation, as well as given the evolution and turnover of this year’s roster, the starting lineup around those two is going to look a little different this year, and it’s not totally clear who else we’ll see take the floor to open the season against Gardner-Webb tomorrow. Kelly could be joined in the backcourt by either Kayla McPherson or Paulina Paris, both second-year Tar Heels who were awesome in spurts as first-year players but also looked overmatched at times. McPherson is an absolute lightning bolt on the floor who changed games for the Heels down the stretch last season but, as to be expected for a player who hadn’t played organized basketball in more than two years, had bouts of offensive inconsistency. Paris showed signs of a smooth jumper and great passing vision, but clearly needed to catch up to the size and speed of the game before she could be a consistent player. I wouldn’t be surprised if either or both are ready for expanded roles this season, but also in line for that second backcourt position is graduate transfer Lexi Donarski, who comes to Chapel Hill after a three-year career at Iowa State. She won Big 12 Defensive Player of the year honors as a sophomore and arrives with a reputation as a lockdown defender and a three-level scorer, and probably is most likely to start alongside Kelly.
One of those three players could also start on the wing to fill the spot left by Todd-Williams, which would push Ustby from small forward to power forward — where I think she’d be miscast but good enough that I wouldn’t let it stop me from getting my 5 best on the floor. But that’s far from a sure proposition with the frontcourt talent UNC has. With Ustby at small forward, the starting 4 position could be held by redshirt sophomore Teonni Key, the highly touted Cary product who played clutch minutes for the Heels in last year’s NCAA Tournament and has reportedly made a huge jump over the offseason. Alternatively, Anya Poole, who started most of last year at center, could play at the 4, where I think she fits better than at center. First-year RyLee Grays could surprise and earn a starting spot; she has the talent and size for it. And at center, it’s a question between Poole’s experience in Chapel Hill against Maria Gakdeng’s more natural fit at the position, providing rim protection and rebounding that were the Heels’ biggest holes last year. I expect Gakdeng, who transferred from Boston College, to start, but it’s no sure thing. And this would only be more complicated if first-years Laila Hull and Ciera Toomey weren’t unfortunately sitting out the season while recovering from surgery.
As you can tell from the many starting lineup questions, the Heels are a deep team this year, with a mix of returning players and new ones. I didn’t even mention Ali Zelaya, a senior who has provided able frontcourt support from the bench her whole career, or Reniya Kelly, the 30th-ranked freshman in the country who could be a sparkplug in the backcourt. Throw in Indya Nivar, who played in every game as a first-year for an elite program in Stanford before transferring closer to her North Carolina home, and this is an exciting roster. We don’t know how it will all fit together, but the ceiling is sky-high.
We’ll see quickly where this team fits among the elites of college basketball this year, as the team could meet Caitlin Clark and #3 Iowa during the Gulf Coast Showcase on Thanksgiving weekend before scheduled December matchups against South Carolina and at UConn, both teams that will likely be in the top-5 and are perennial national championship contenders. And that’s before competing in the ACC, which is as good a women’s basketball conference as there is in the country. The Heels will have ample opportunity to prove they’re for real this year, and it looks like Banghart is pumped about it:
6 games upcoming vs preseason Top 10 teams.— Courtney Banghart (@CoachBanghart) October 17, 2023
Yes, we’re talking about scheduling ️ ️ https://t.co/1jyYQjE8nj
Up first, though, is tomorrow’s season opener against Gardner-Webb, who were a tournament team last year but are essentially rebuilding the program from scratch this season after the departure of coach Alex Simmons for Memphis. The Heels play at 7:00 Eastern and can be watched streaming on ESPN’s app.