One of the beauties of sports is the ability to bounce back when things don’t go your way. During the bulk of the college basketball season, the wait to step back on the game court after a loss is just two or three days. It’s even sooner to get back on the practice court.
But when the Carolina women’s basketball team fell to Michigan in a disappointing 76-68 loss in the Jumpman Invitational in Charlotte on Dec. 20, that wait was longer. Much longer. With the five-day Christmas break immediately after the loss, and nine days until the next game, players and coaches had an opportunity to feel the defeat and analyze the contest. And while logic suggests that forgetting such a disappointing game might be best, Carolina coach Courtney Banghart felt differently. So, she issued a challenge.
“I thought Michigan was a real turning point for us,” she reflected. “We sat on it. I asked (the players) to think on it and sit on it all break and come up with something they individually were going to do to change the course of how we were playing.”
So the Tar Heels scattered, heading back to their homes and spending some down time away from the team. ACC play loomed on the horizon when the break was over. Fortunately, the challenge to improve was well-received and seemed to take hold over the break.
“They came back with a renewed sense of purpose,” Banghart said.
But the Michigan game still wasn’t in the rearview mirror quite just yet.
“We made them watch it the first day back,” the fourth-year Tar Heel head coach said.
Recommitting to playing with physicality and energy, Carolina embarked on the ACC journey and tangled with Florida State and Virginia Tech in the first week of league action. The win-loss column may not reflect the growth since Michigan, as FSU walked away with a 78-71 win at Carmichael Arena and Virginia Tech eked out a 68-65 home win on Sunday, but the process certainly shows improvement.
“We’ve gotten back to ourselves, which is a group of fighters that are focused on the growth that we have to have at this level and the toughness we have to play with,” Banghart said.
An obvious area of improvement is starting games. Carolina trailed each of the four ranked non-conference teams they played by at least 12 points. Yes, the Tar Heels won two of those games, but having to dig from a large hole isn’t a sustainable way to consistently have success. The largest deficit faced in either game this week was seven – the final score of the Florida State game.
Even between the two games, physicality and rebounding was emphasized. FSU dominated second chance points 37-5 with 20 offensive rebounds. A few days later, it was the Tar Heels who won second chance points, 14-11.
So, even as Carolina hunts for its first Power Five win in a month, the process is working. Everyone just has to do their part.
Here’s what else caught my eye this week…
Paris’ Breakout Day
With foul trouble limiting some of the Tar Heels’ top options against Virginia Tech and the game on the line into the fourth quarter, an unexpected source sparked Carolina’s offense: the lone true freshman on the roster. Playing in her first ever ACC road game, Paulina Paris scored the Tar Heels’ first seven points of the fourth quarter and would finish the quarter with nine points in the frame alone. For context, the New York native had scored just six points against Power Five opponents all season and eclipsed that in one quarter alone. She would finish her day with 15 points, matching a career-best set against USC Upstate on Dec. 16. Paris’ ability to score on dribble penetration helped to expose a vulnerable spot in Virginia Tech’s defense and keep Carolina going blow-for-blow with the Hokies in the thrilling game. The explosion onto the scene for Paris was, in the eyes of her coach, a testament to her constant improvement and effort behind the scenes in practice.
“You all get to see gamedays,” Banghart said. “I get to see the progression of players with their confidence and talent. The way in which Paulina has approached her journey is really intentional. She comes every day with a clear focus.”
The continued emergence of Paris will be a key factor for a Tar Heel team that continues to grow and develop into the heart of ACC play.
Another Close Battle with Hokies
Sunday’s loss at Virginia Tech was the ninth meeting with the Hokies in Courtney Banghart’s three-and-a-half-year tenure on the Carolina bench, a number that is inflated a bit thanks to three matchups between the two foes in each of the last two seasons. The ACC added a third regular season meeting between the two in 2020-21 due to COVID rescheduling, and an ACC Tournament clash in Greensboro a season ago marked a rubber game after a split of the regular season series. Regardless of time of year, venue, or day of the week, the games always seem to provide one thing: drama. Seven of the nine meetings have been decided by single digits, with the lone exceptions being the two games at Carmichael Arena over the last two seasons, when Virginia Tech won by 12 in 2021 and Carolina by 25 in a rare blowout in 2022.
And Sunday’s game? A perfect microcosm of this competitive series. 12 ties. 26 lead changes. That’s nearly one tie or lead change per minute of game action. Neither team led by more than six. From a purely neutral observer’s point of view, the game was an instant classic.
“It’s the allure of sport,” Banghart said when asked about the nail-biting matchups. “It’s like the Celtics and Lakers. Two teams that are similarly built in terms of offensive skill and defensive grittiness, and a lot of familiarity.”
It’s another difficult week on the docket for Carolina, with a pair of ACC tests looming. Up first is a showdown with Miami on Thursday at 6:00 p.m. in Coral Gables, where the Tar Heels will aim to win for the first time since 2015. A season ago, the Heels blitzed Miami to build a 53-13 halftime lead and rolled to an 85-38 win at Carmichael Arena by holding the Hurricanes below 23 percent from the floor. That loss was a catalyst for the Hurricanes, as Miami won four of its last five games of the regular season to earn the ACC’s No. 7 seed before making an improbable run to the ACC Tournament championship game.
Like Carolina, Miami’s season came to an end against South Carolina, who grinded out a 49-33 win in the NCAA Tournament second round. This year’s Hurricanes are 8-6 and 1-2 in the ACC, falling by three at home last week against now-No. 4 Notre Dame before a win over Pitt on the road on Sunday. Keep an eye on Haley Cavinder, a Fresno State transfer who leads the team in scoring at 12.6 points per game and shoots nearly 43 percent from behind the arc. She scored 21 points with five made threes in the Pitt win.
Our THSN coverage on Thursday from South Florida begins at 5:30 p.m. with the Reeds Jewelers Pregame Show. Catch the broadcast locally on 97.9 FM/1360 AM in the Triangle (starting at 6:00 p.m.), or worldwide in full and for free via our THSN streaming platforms: GoHeels.com, the GoHeels app, and the Varsity Network app from Learfield.
Then, speaking of No. 4 Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish will venture to Carmichael Arena for the annual regular-season meeting on Sunday at 4:00 p.m. Notre Dame, 3-0 in the ACC with gritty road wins over Virginia Tech and Miami, rolled over Boston College on Sunday 85-48. The Irish have an open date on Thursday, so they’ll be rested prior to Sunday. Niele Ivey’s team is again led by constant triple-double threat Olivia Miles at the point guard position, with Oregon transfer Kylee Watson providing a challenge in the post and Dara Mabrey one of the most potent shooters in the conference. Carolina will be playing for its third straight home win over Notre Dame, having toppled the Irish 78-73 in both 2019 (when the Irish were No. 1), and in 2021. We’ll be on the air at 3:30 p.m. with the Reeds Jewelers Pregame Show. Catch the broadcast locally on 97.9 FM/1360 AM in the Triangle, or worldwide for free via our THSN streaming platforms: GoHeels.com, the GoHeels app, and the Varsity Network app from Learfield.