March 25, 2021 

ACC notes: UNC looks ahead, Kayla Jones questionable for N.C. State

A notebook from the first two rounds of NCAA tournament play

Welcome to The Next: A basketball newsroom brought to you by The IX. 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage, written, edited, and photographed by our young, diverse staff, dedicated to breaking news, analysis, historical deep dives, and projections about the game we love.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today.

Join today

Subscribe to make sure this vital work, creating a pipeline of young, diverse media professionals to write, edit and photograph the great game, continues, and grows. Paid subscriptions include some exclusive content, but the reason for subscriptions is a simple one: making sure our writers and editors creating 24/7/365 women’s basketball coverage get paid to do it.

UNC’s Alyssa Ustby fights toward the basket on Monday, March 22, 2021, at the NCAA tournament. (UNC Athletic Communications)

The North Carolina Tar Heels had an unceremonious exit from the NCAA tournament Monday, falling in the first round to Alabama, 80-71.

In her final game in a UNC uniform, Stephanie Watts had arguably her best game yet, pouring in a season-high 29 points to go along with three rebounds, three assists, and three blocks. Fellow senior Janelle Bailey had 16 points and nine boards.

But while Bailey and Watts were important contributors to the Tar Heels this season, the game wasn’t really about them and their individual performances. It was about the foundation that they helped Courtney Banghart set, and the expectation they helped set for the freshmen on this team and future Tar Heels.

“They have brought Carolina back to where it belongs and it’s on us to continue to build on this tradition so that this stay is longer moving forward,” Banghart said Monday. “

Banghart is thankful for everything her seniors gave her, but she was able to look a bit toward the future Monday. The young core of this team – Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby – both return next year, as do fellow freshman Kennedy Todd-Williams, Alexandra Zelaya, and Anya Poole, and sophomores Malu Tshitenge and Ariel Young.

For Kelly and Ustby – who both played more than 33 minutes Monday, but combined to shoot just 4-of-23 from the floor – playing in Monday’s game on the NCAA tournament was incredibly important, Banghart believes. Not just to give them motivation for next season, but also for their development next season.

“It was critical,” Banghart said. “We need these young guys on this stage. They need to figure out how to be big in big moments. And they have been during the year, but the NCAA tournament is totally different. The result and the journey of the NCAA tournament – I’ve been in these a lot and it really drives your offseason.

“And I can assure you that our young guys are going to put the work in that will ensure that they’re even more prepared individually the next time they get this chance because they don’t come by easy. And I don’t think any of them played the way that they had wanted – and that’s okay; they’re young. But you know, they didn’t play well enough to help us win the game. So, we’ll make sure that they stay focused on the next step of their journey.”

Joining the core Banghart already has on her roster will be at least five new players. In just her second year at the helm, Banghart is bringing in one of the top recruiting classes in the nation with four players ranked in the top 20 of ESPN’s rankings. They are New Jersey wing Destiny Adams, Michigan guard Morasha Wiggins, Georgia guard Kayla McPherson and Teonni Key – a 6’3 wing from nearby Cary, North Carolina.

Additionally, this year’s transfer market figures to be a deep one with the NCAA’s COVID-era ruling that doesn’t make this past season count toward a player’s eligibility clock. UNC has already landed a commitment from Princeton’s Carlie Littlefield, one of the Ivy League’s top players. In the 2019-20 season, she averaged 13.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 43.9% from the floor and 37% from the three-point range.

For Banghart, this coming offseason will be crucial. Not just to integrate her new players, but to help the current ones grow too. Like most freshmen, this past season, UNC’s group didn’t have a real offseason to prepare for the transition to college game.

The Tar Heels’ road to next year’s NCAA tournament begins now.

“Nothing’s worse than potential that’s unrealized, right? So, they need to be pushed and they need to fail in the weight room a little bit. They need that kind of strength and the mental strength that comes from that,” Banghart said. “And then the skill work. Alyssa has really got to become a knockdown three-point shooter that’s really dangerous. Deja, she’s got to continue to add shots to her bag.

“The offseason is a critical part that gets no celebration. You do it when the lights aren’t on. But you do it in the right way so that when the lights are on, you don’t have this moment after the first game.”

Kayla Jones’ status uncertain for Wolfpack

N.C. State could be without a key contributor in the Sweet 16 next weekend.

Senior forward Kayla Jones is dealing with a patella tendon injury, head coach Wes Moore said Tuesday after the Wolfpack’s 79-67 win over South Florida.

“Kayla Jones is like our swiss-army knife. She does everything well,” Moore said. “So, we really miss her. I don’t know when she might be back. We were fortunate to get through today without her. A lot of it is just going to depend on the pain and just how intense it is. Hopefully, she’ll improve.”

Jones suffered the injury during N.C. State’s first-round win over N.C. A&T and missed the Wolfpack’s second-round victory over USF. Sophomore Jada Boyd started in her place and finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds.

“I thought Jada Boyd did a great job,” Moore said. “Jada is just so explosive and athletic. She creates some match-up problems… I’ve said all year long, we’ve got six starters.”

An All-ACC Second Team selection, Jones averaged 11.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game this season while shooting 48.8% from the floor and 42.3% from the three-point range.

In the Sweet 16, N.C. State will face the winner between No. 4 Indiana and No. 12 Belmont.

Two All-ACC seniors uncertain about draft decisions

Wake Forest guard Gina Conti goes for a lay-up on Jan. 23, 2020, in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Mitchell Northam, The Next)

When asked if she was going to take advantage of the NCAA’s free year of eligibility given to all athletes this academic year, Wake Forest senior Gina Conti was non-committal about returning for one more year with the Deacs.

“I’m unsure,” Conti said Sunday. “I’m going to take this time to reflect over the next few weeks to see what my future looks like. So, I’m still unsure whether if I’m coming back or not, or what’s in store for me.”

Conti ranks third in Wake Forest history in assists with 485. She was named to the All-ACC Second Team this season and averaged 13.8 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game while shooting 40.5% from the floor, 35.4% from three, and 84% from the charity stripe.

Fellow Wake senior Ivana Raca has said multiple times this past year that this would be her last season of college basketball. She is expected to play with Serbia in this summer’s Olympics.

Virginia Tech’s Aisha Sheppard is another player who is unsure about whether to return to school for an extra season or enter the WNBA Draft, according to what head coach Kenny Brooks said in responding to a question from The Next.

“We’ve had conversations throughout the year. We want her back. We’d love to have her back,” Brooks said. “But we also want her to do what’s best for herself. I’ve had some conversations with some people in the WNBA and we’ll lay that out for her – and obviously, the time is creeping up on us. She has an open invitation to come back. She stated to me that she hasn’t made a decision yet, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she did come back.”

A 5’9 guard, Sheppard was a First Team All-ACC selection this season and is Virginia Tech’s all-time leader in three-pointers made.

In Tuesday’s loss to No. 2 Baylor, Sheppard had 15 points, three rebounds, and one assist. She averaged 17.7 points-per-game this past season and was third in the nation in three’s made per-game with 3.5.

ACC extras

  • In responding to a question from The Next, North Carolina sixth-year senior Stephanie Watts confirmed that she has played her last college game and will enter the upcoming WNBA Draft. A 5’11 guard, she averaged 11.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 85.5% from the charity stripe this season. When she was a sophomore, Watts set an ACC single-game record with 10 three-pointers made in one game vs. Charleston Southern.

  • Marist built a 21-12 lead before ultimately falling to second-seeded Louisville. The Cards closed out the half on a 17-3 run. Here’s what Cardinals’ freshman Hailey Van Lith said about their turnaround: ”We just turned it up on defense and got easy layups. We saw it go in. We started playing as a team, we turned it up, had energy, and made the game fun for us.”

  • Norika Konno had a career-high six steals for Louisville against Marist, which is the most by a Cardinals player this season in a single game. The sophomore from Sendai, Japan also had five points, three boards, and an assist in 18 minutes off the bench.

  • Louisville is now 12-0 all-time in first-round NCAA tournament games under Jeff Walz, with an average win margin of 26.1 points. Wednesday’s win put them in the Sweet 16 for the 10th time in Walz’s 14-year tenure.

  • After guiding Georgia Tech to a win over No. 4 West Virginia on Tuesday, ACC Coach of the Year Nell Fortner expanded on why she tweeted out a statement on the disparities between the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments. Said Fortner: “It’s a great opportunity. We’re on a stage, on a platform right now, to talk about some things. The inequities have been around for a long time. Just about every coach here has had an opinion on it, and I put out a statement and it’s just – I put out what I felt. And it’s just that: how I feel. I think that the inequities are something that need to be looked at. I feel like we’re a viable, valuable asset to be able to run a little bit stronger championship. I’m going to give you an example: we played on a floor tonight that doesn’t even look like an NCAA tournament floor. I think that’s a shame for our game. But, you know, we’ve got to talk about things. We’ve got to bring things up and get them addressed at times and you can’t shy away from it.”

  • Notre Dame guard Alli Campbell announced that she has transferred to Penn State. A rising sophomore, she played in six games for the Irish this past season, averaging 2.2 points-per-game. She is a native of Altoona, Pennsylvania.

  • N.C. State head coach Wes Moore was named the 2021 United States Marine Corps/WBCA NCAA Division I National Coach of the Year. Jeff Walz of Louisville was a finalist for the award.

Written by Mitchell Northam

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.