There was a tangible buzz surrounding 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 its core and boasted a No. 12 preseason ranking in the AP Top 25, leading to genuine excitement for a rapidly-expanding fanbase. Still, questions lingered in the mind of fourth-year Tar Heel head coach Courtney Banghart. Her team battled the injury bug through the preseason, limiting the ability to hold a full practice in the run-up to the regular season. How much would personnel limit the Tar Heels’ ability to start the season fast? Would that success carry over from last season?
Four games into the year, we can safely say that the Tar Heels’ early season stretch has gone about as successfully as you could imagine. A 32-point win over reigning SWAC Champion Jackson State, a team that pushed numerous Power Five foes last season, set the tone for the season. A few days later, Carolina held TCU to a mere 25 percent from the floor in improving to 2-0. South Carolina State was next on the docket, and the Tar Heels handled business over the overmatched competition, winning 93-25. In the process, Carolina set a program record for fewest points allowed under Banghart and re-wrote the defensive record books in holding the Bulldogs to a single point in the first quarter.
The team’s calling card in the run-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 ranked third in the conference (21st nationally) in allowing just 55.8 points per game. Seeing trends such as those carry over to the start of this year – regardless of competition – is a welcome sign for Banghart.
“I think this team is becoming a pretty good team,” Carolina’s head coach said. “With where we are defensively, they’re buying into how important that end 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 stepped on the floor eager to improve to 4-0 on the year for the fourth time in as many seasons under Banghart. But as happens sometimes, adversity hit. James Madison got hot from three, hitting seven in the first half alone. Some Carolina starters wound up in foul trouble. Now, the Tar Heels found themselves trailing at halftime and locked in a battle. So, back to the defense. With renewed focus and intensity after halftime, Carolina held the host Dukes to just 32 percent from the floor with 10 total field goals. The result? A 76-65 win.
“We needed that,” Banghart said after the win. “We needed the opportunity to play a true road game. We thought we had a real collective win, a really good team win.”
Defense? Check. Ability to respond to adversity? Check.
Now up to No. 8 in the AP Poll, the Tar Heels are ready for a tough road to come in the next two weeks.
Here’s what else caught my eye in these first two weeks…
Ustby’s History Making Day
Alyssa Ustby enjoyed a special season debut in the opener against Jackson State. Not only did the now-junior collect her 16th career double-double, but she was extremely efficient in doing so. Her 19-minute stint in the game yielded 19 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, three blocks, and two steals. Remarkably enough, Ustby became the first player in Division I men’s or women’s basketball, the NBA, or the WNBA to post that stat line while playing less than 20 minutes, per StatsPerform.
“I knew we’d get a lot from Alyssa,” Banghart reflected. “But I didn’t know we’d have something so efficient so early in the season. Her relentlessness makes us better.”
Destiny Adams: Hard Work Pays Off
Few players have shown a larger year-to-year leap from last season to the early stages of the 2022-23 season than Destiny Adams. The Carolina sophomore played in 28 games a season ago, averaging 3.0 PPG and 2.6 RPG in limited action. Now, there were certainly flashes of Adams’ potential – a 10-point game against Appalachian State and playing over half of the Tar Heels’ comeback fourth quarter at Boston College both come to mind. But that potential has turned into productivity for Adams, who has played at least 19 minutes in each game this season with significant results. She started her season against Jackson State with an eight-point game, then matched her previous career high with 10 points against TCU. The matching of her career high was simply a sign of things to come. Against South Carolina State, Adams exceeded her scoring high-water mark 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 display of the effort the sophomore has been exerting behind closed doors.
“She’s got a real doggedness to her, she’s a fighter,” Banghart explained. “Any good team needs someone like that. Last year, she relied on that as her mainstay. So we worked on her positioning and her skillset to make her more complete.”
Adams also made her first career start against South Carolina State, a reward for that hard work in the offseason and the beginning of what seems to be a breakout season.
“She’s still that same fighter,” Banghart said. “But she’s better at basketball too.”
A Key Addition
A long-awaited moment for Tar Heel fans took place during the Nov. 16 home game against South Carolina State. Teonni Key, the former No. 9 recruit in the nation by ESPNW in the class of 2021, took off 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 torn ACL sustained in a preseason scrimmage last fall, so her first college game was not just the next step of her career, but the completion of a lengthy rehab process.
“When a kid goes down with a season-ending injury, it’s hard for everybody,” Banghart said. “But the day you know you’re going to get the chance to call her name is a good day, and it’s one you count down and you get excited about.”
Key’s debut would have been a successful one simply by stepping on the court, but she contributed 13 points and seven rebounds in the Tar Heels’ win, in addition to a mammoth block late in the first half that made the rounds on the internet among the women’s basketball community. For Key, her teammates and coaches, hype finally became tangible reality.
Filling the Void: Eva Hodgson
No two teams are alike, and each season is a brand new year.
That’s a pair of cliches that you hear a lot around college basketball this time of the season. The 2022-23 Tar Heels provide an interesting case for this theory, since four starters and eight of the team’s top nine scorers return from a team that reached the NCAA Sweet 16 a season ago. Plus, the entire coaching staff is back from the memorable run through the end of the 2021-22 campaign. But the theory holds up at one critical spot: point guard. Carlie Littlefield is the lone member of those nine leading scorers to not return, her eligibility exhausted and a professional career in Belgium underway. Enter Eva Hodgson, who was Carolina’s every-game sixth player last season and frequently contributed to the team’s prolific offense with 14 double-figure scoring games. Hodgson, a second-year Tar Heel after an undergraduate career at William & Mary, made her first Carolina start in the season opener against Jackson State, and scored 13 points in earning the win.
“We kind of counted on her as our sixth starter last season,” Banghart said. “She went in and did whatever we needed. ‘Did we need scoring, did we need facilitation, did we need a defensive charge? What is it we needed?'”
Still, the mindset of a traditional starting “one-guard” is to be a playmaker and facilitate. And while Hodgson is a dynamic facilitator – she set a Carolina career-best with eight helpers 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 taking as many three-point shots as she should be. Hodgson was 1-for-2 from three in the opening half, but tripled her shot attempts in the second half by going 3-for-6 from behind the arc. Her last three of the third quarter gave Carolina their largest lead at the time (four points) and helped set the table for a fourth quarter that put the game away.
“We’re a much better team when Eva takes threes,” Banghart said postgame.
Carolina’s next journey takes the Tar Heels to the Pacific Northwest for an appearance in the Phil Knight Invitational (PKI) in Portland, Ore. The No. 8 Heels open the tournament with a matchup against Oregon, a Ducks team that has a much shorter route to the event than Carolina – though the game will be on a neutral floor at the University of Portland’s Chiles Center. No. 18 Oregon, like Carolina, arrives in Portland with a 4-0 record that includes a home Power Five win (100-57 against Northwestern). Oregon has brought in the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation to aim to return to the upper echelon of the sport, along with a group of transfers who have entered the program in the last two years. The third ever meeting between the two schools tips at 5:00 p.m. Eastern/2:00 p.m. Pacific on Thanksgiving Day in Portland, with Tar Heel Sports Network coverage beginning a half hour prior at 4:30 p.m. back home in North Carolina. 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.
Then, Carolina will face either Michigan State or No. 5 Iowa State on Sunday in the second game at the PKI. The two Thursday winners will clash, as will the two teams not fortunate enough to emerge with a win. The championship game tips at 7:30 p.m. Eastern/4:30 p.m. Pacific, while the consolation game will begin at 1:00 p.m. Eastern/10:00 a.m. Pacific. THSN coverage on our usual streaming platforms will begin a half hour prior to game time. WCHL coverage will depend on what time the Carolina men’s basketball team plays in their final game at the PKI that day.
That’s all for now! Happy Thanksgiving, enjoy the games, and Go Heels!