UNC women’s basketball ready to shoot into the spotlight

North Carolina head coach Courtney Bangart guides her players during the first half of NC State's game against UNC at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.

North Carolina head coach Courtney Bangart guides her players during the first half of NC State’s game against UNC at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, North Carolina, Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.

ehyman@newsobserver.com

The hype reached North Carolina women’s basketball after she competed in the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Championships last season and returned as the top four scorer.

This means increased program visibility, increased interest in the program, and increased expectations from the outside. UNC Head Coach Courtney Bangart welcomes everything.

“It’s a team that’s got a lot of energy and excitement around it and I think they deserve it,” Bangart said. “It’s not because we’re focused on recruiting on me. It’s really letting the product sell in terms of what they earn and these guys have earned it. It’s really fun to watch, they play the game the right way and they’re rewarded.”

Carolina made her biggest impression last season by winning the number one at the time. 3 Louisville in the regular season, going on the road to defeating Arizona in the NCAA Championship and giving the eventual national champion South Carolina the toughest game of the tournament in a 69-61 loss.

This is part of the reason why the Tar Heels were shown as a top 10 team by several “very early” polls including ESPN.com and Athletic, where they occupy tenth place.

The Heels bring back four starters including leading scorer Deja Kelly, who is likely to contend for the ACC Player of the Year award. Goalkeeper Alyssa Ostby led the team in rebounding and was the team’s second-highest scorer. Kennedy’s Todd Williams finished as the team’s top scorer, averaging 10.8 points per game. Striker Anya Paul started every game last season as a sophomore.

If the NCAA had not disqualified Ivy League players, who did not have a season in 2019-20 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, an additional year of exemption from eligibility, they would have taken back all five starters. But the decision ended Carly Littlefield’s career from UNC, who had moved from Princeton.

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University of North Carolina head coach Courtney Bangart talks with her team during practice for their Sweet 16 game at Greensboro Coliseum on Thursday, March 24, 2022. The University of North Carolina will face the University of South Carolina. Tracy Glantz tglantz@thestate.com

While having so many players who have contributed to their success is a start, Bangart said UNC cannot be satisfied with what it accomplished last season.

“The important thing I pass on to my guys is that just because we were good last year, doesn’t mean we were good this year,” Bangart said. “Just because we weren’t good the year before, doesn’t mean we won’t be good.”

With its fourth season at the helm, Bangart believes the foundation has finally been laid. The heels are not heavy in the transport gate due to their recruitment.

Freshmen Tony Key and Kayla McPherson spent all of last season rehabilitating knee injuries, but Bangart is excited about what they can bring into the spin.

There is also reason for optimism at the base, despite Littlefield’s loss, due to incoming freshman Paulina Paris. She is among the top 30 nationally recruits in the 2022 class and could help fill the void.

Bangart said she’s noticed a bump in hiring thanks to the success she’s had.

“Some people were waiting and they kind of didn’t know me, because I’m coming from my background, and they also didn’t know enough about whether this change would really help the development of the program,” Bangart said. “And so I think the consistency and there are a lot of recruits across the country, they were watching this team. And as I saw, this team became really liked, and it became liked by recruits as well.”

They won’t be so well-liked in the ACC that Notre Dame, Louisville, Virginia Tech and NC State can all be ranked 15th pre-season once the polls come in. But the Banghart and the Heels welcome the challenge.

This story was originally published June 2, 2022 5:35 a.m.

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CL Brown covers the University of North Carolina News and Observer. Brown has more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as a successful writer at Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay in the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he won an APSE award, he stopped by ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried to run his own website, clbrownhoops.com.

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