There was tangible excitement about the 2022-23 Carolina women’s basketball season among Tar Heel fans and the Chapel Hill community. A team coming off its deepest NCAA tournament run since 2015 returned to its core and boasted a No. 12 preseason ranking in the AP Top 25, sparking genuine enthusiasm for a rapidly growing fanbase. Still, questions lingered on the mind of the fourth-year Tar Heel head coach Courtney Banghart. Her team struggled with the injury virus in preseason, limiting their ability to hold a full practice session ahead of the regular season. How much would the staff limit the Tar Heels’ ability to get the season started quickly? Would this achievement be carried over from last season?
Four games into the year, we can safely say that the Tar Heels preseason was as successful as you can imagine. A 32-point win over reigning SWAC champion Jackson State, a team that edged out numerous Power Five opponents last season, set the tone for the season. A few days later, Carolina held TCU at just 25 percent off the ground, improving to 2-0. South Carolina State was next on the list, and the Tar Heels took the job against overwhelmed competition, winning 93-25. In the process, Carolina set a program record for fewest points allowed under Banghart and rewrote the defensive record books by keeping the Bulldogs to a single point in the first quarter.
The team’s calling card leading up to the Sweet 16 was defense. Last year’s Tar Heels led the ACC in field goal percentage defense and three point percentage defense and finished third in the conference (21st-21st).St national) only allows 55.8 points per game. Seeing trends like this continue earlier this year – regardless of the competition – is a welcome sign for Banghart.
“I think this team is shaping up to be a pretty good team,” Carolina’s head coach said. “With our defensive position, they believe how important this ending is for us.”
In Sunday’s fourth game of the season at James Madison, the Tar Heels dressed 10 healthy players for the first time this season and hit the ground to go 4-0 from last year under Banghart for the fourth time in as many seasons . But, as sometimes happens, adversity struck. James Madison got hot from three, hitting seven in the first half alone. Some Carolina starters got into serious trouble. Now the Tar Heels were behind at halftime and engaged in a fight. So back to defense. With renewed focus and intensity after halftime, Carolina kept the host Dukes just 32 percent off the ground with a total of 10 field goals. The result? A 76-65 win.
“We needed that,” Banghart said after the win. “We needed the opportunity to play a real away game. We thought we had a real collective win, a really good team win.”
Defense? Check. Ability to respond to adversity? Check.
Now at No. 8 in the AP poll, the Tar Heels are poised for a tough road ahead over the next two weeks.
Here’s what I noticed in the first two weeks…
Ustby’s Day of History
Alyssa Usby enjoyed a special season debut in the opener against Jackson State. The current junior not only collected her 16thth Career double-double, but she was extremely efficient at it. Her 19-minute stint in the game yielded 19 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals. Notably, Ustby was the first player in either men’s or women’s Division I basketball, the NBA, or the WNBA to post this stat line while playing less than 20 minutes, according to StatsPerform.
“I knew we would get a lot from Alyssa,” Banghart mused. “But I didn’t know we would have something so efficient this early in the season. Your relentlessness makes us better.”
Destiny Adams: Hard work pays off
From last season into the early stages of the 2022-23 season, few players have shown a bigger leap from year to year than Destiny Adams. The Carolina sophomore played in 28 games averaging 3.0 PPG and 2.6 RPG in limited action a season ago. Well, there were certainly flashes of Adams’ potential — a 10-point game against Appalachian State and more than half of the fourth quarter of the Tar Heels’ comeback at Boston College come to mind. But that potential has turned into productivity for Adams, who has played at least 19 minutes with meaningful results in every game this season. She started her season with an eight-point game against Jackson State and then equaled her career high with 10 points against TCU. Reaching her career high was just a portent of things to come. Against South Carolina State, Adams surpassed her record in the third quarter alone, finishing the game with 23 points on 10-for-14 shooting. For Banghart, the leap forward for Adams is simply a public demonstration of the effort the sophomore has been making behind closed doors.
“She has a real tenacity, she’s a fighter,” Banghart explained. “Every good team needs someone like that. Last year she relied on that as a mainstay. So we worked on their positioning and their abilities to make them more complete.”
Adams also made her first career start against South Carolina State, a reward for that hard work in the offseason and the start of what seemed like a successful season.
“She’s still the same fighter,” Banghart said. “But she’s also better at basketball.”
An important addition
A long-awaited moment for Tar Heel fans came during the November 16th home game against South Carolina State. Teonni Key, ESPNW’s former No. 9 nation recruit in the Class of 2021, removed her shooting shirt, jogged to the scorer’s table and checked into the game. Key’s Carolina debut was delayed a year and two games due to a cruciate ligament injury sustained in a preseason scrimmage last fall, so her first college game was not only the next step in her career, but the culmination of a long one rehabilitation process.
“When a kid goes down with an injury at the end of the season, it’s tough for everyone,” Banghart said. “But the day you know you’re going to get the chance to say her name is a good day, and it’s one to count down to and look forward to.”
Key’s debut would have been a successful one simply stepping onto the court, but she contributed 13 points and seven rebounds to the Tar Heels’ victory, in addition to a mammoth block late in the first half that made laps in the internet under the women’s basketball community. For Key, her teammates and coaches, the hype finally became tangible reality.
Filling the Void: Eva Hodgson
No two teams are the same, and every season is a brand new year.
Those are two cliches you hear a lot in college basketball this time of year. The 2022-23 Tar Heels provide interesting evidence of this theory, as four starters and eight of the team’s top nine scorers return from a team that made the NCAA Sweet 16 a season ago. Also, the entire coaching staff has returned from the memorable run to the end of the 2021-22 season. But the theory holds at one critical point: point guard. Carlie Littlefield is the only member of those top nine scorers not to return, exhausted her playing eligibility and has a professional career underway in Belgium. Then comes Eva Hodgson, who was Carolina’s sixth player in every game last season and has been a frequent contributor to the team’s successful offense with 14 games in double figures. Hodgson, a Tar Heel sophomore after a bachelor’s career at William & Mary, made her first Carolina start in the season opener against Jackson State and scored 13 points for the win.
“We pretty much counted on her as the sixth starter last season,” said Banghart. “She went in and did what we needed. ‘Did we need goals, did we need support, did we need a defensive charge? What did we need?'”
Still, it’s the mindset of a traditional “one-guard” to be a playmaker and facilitate. And while Hodgson is a dynamic presenter — she set a career Carolina career best with eight assists against South Carolina State — Banghart believes her best quality is shooting the ball from three-point range. When the Tar Heels trailed James Madison by four at halftime on Sunday, one of the Tar Heel coach’s observations was that Hodgson wasn’t making as many three-pointers as she should. Hodgson was 1-for-2 of three in the first half but tripled her shot attempts in the second half by going 3-for-6 behind the arc. Her final three of the third quarter gave Carolina her biggest lead at the time (four points) and helped set the table for a game-ending fourth quarter.
“We’re a much better team when Eva plays with three,” said Banghart after the game.
Carolina’s next trip takes the Tar Heels to the Pacific Northwest for a performance at the Phil Knight Invitational (PKI) in Portland, Oregon. The No. 8 Heels open the tournament with a matchup against Oregon, a Ducks team that has one a lot of A shorter walk to the event than Carolina — although the game will take place on a neutral ground at the University of Portland’s Chiles Center. Oregon, No. 18, joins Carolina in coming to Portland with a 4-0 record that includes a home win for the Power Five (100-57 against Northwestern). Oregon retired the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class to return to the sport’s upper league along with a group of transfers that have entered the program over the past two years. The third meeting between the two schools occurs at 5:00 p.m. Eastern/2:00 a.m. Pacific on Thanksgiving Day in Portland, with Tar Heel Sports Network coverage beginning a half-hour earlier at 4:30 p.m. at home in North Carolina . Watch 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 Learfield’s Varsity Network app.
Then Carolina meets either Michigan State or No. 5 Iowa State in Sunday’s second game of the PKI. The two Thursday winners will clash, as will the two teams not lucky enough to walk away with a win. The championship game starts at 7:30 p.m. Eastern / 4:30 a.m. Pacific, while the consolation game starts at 1:00 p.m. Eastern / 10:00 a.m. Pacific. THSN coverage on our usual streaming platforms begins half an hour before game time. Coverage of the WCHL is dependent on when the Carolina men’s basketball team plays its last game in the PKI that day.
That’s all! Happy Thanksgiving, enjoy the games and Go Heels!