March 8, 2021
North Carolina lands Princeton graduate transfer Carlie Littlefield
The First-Team All-Ivy point guard will reunite with former Princeton coach Courtney Banghart
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One day after the confetti fell on ACC Tournament champion NC State, a single announcement on Twitter threatened to shake up next season’s conference standings. Princeton senior point guard Carlie Littlefield—a two-time First-Team All-Ivy League selection—announced her decision to play for North Carolina next year as a graduate student.
Littlefield told The Next that she seriously considered schools in the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 but ultimately chose to reunite with UNC head coach Courtney Banghart and assistant coach Carrie Moore, both of whom coached Littlefield at Princeton for two seasons. “I already had that trust established with Coach Banghart and Coach Moore at Chapel Hill, and so that kind of was the biggest driver of my decision,” Littlefield said.
In three seasons at Princeton, Littlefield averaged 11.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.6 steals in nearly 31 minutes per game. (The Ivy League canceled all winter sports for 2020-21, wiping out what would have been Littlefield’s senior season.) She shot 42% from the field, 36% from 3-point range, and 75% from the free throw line, pairing with current Dallas Wings forward Bella Alarie to form a lethal inside-outside attack.
Littlefield’s defensive prowess also can’t be overstated. When she first arrived at Princeton, she surprised Banghart by consistently guarding opponents full court. “That’s just me setting the tone,” Littlefield said in 2019. As a junior, Littlefield ranked in the 99th percentile nationally in defensive rating and defensive win shares and tied the Princeton single-game record for steals with 10 against George Washington. (She ranked in “just” the 93rd and 95th percentiles in offensive rating and offensive win shares.)
Littlefield led Princeton to three Ivy League regular-season championships, two conference tournament titles, and two NCAA Tournaments. A third Ivy League Tournament crown and NCAA Tournament appearance were likely if the 2020 tournaments had not been cancelled due to COVID-19.
Banghart will hope that Littlefield can be the missing piece that elevates North Carolina in the ACC. In Banghart’s first season in 2019-20, the Tar Heels had a 16-14 record and were projected to miss the NCAA Tournament. This season, they are 13-10, and The Next’s Russell Steinberg pegged them as a No. 9 seed as of March 8.
“[Banghart has] made tremendous progress,” said Mitchell Northam, The Next’s ACC beat reporter. “From last year to this year, she completely overhauled the roster and the depth chart. Two of her recruits, Deja Kelly and Alyssa Ustby, really established themselves this season without a real offseason to prepare. And Banghart got the most out of two grad transfers in Petra Holešínská and Stephanie Watts.”
Before hearing of Littlefield’s decision, Northam said that the Tar Heels could be a top-four ACC team in 2021-22 behind Kelly, Ustby, and the nation’s third-best recruiting class. Littlefield only raises their ceiling as a pure point guard who can create for herself and others, rarely turns the ball over, and defends without fouling.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen just watching [UNC] this year [is] they play super fast,” Littlefield said. “… I think I’ll be able to help them play really fast. And then this year, they’ve also kind of been without a true point guard. They’ve had some people kind of playing it by committee. But I think being able to come in as a true point guard and helping them run is where I can really help.”
On the advice of current Princeton head coach Carla Berube, Littlefield entered her name in the transfer portal about four months ago, after the NCAA announced that the 2020-21 season would not count against players’ eligibility. Within only a few hours, coaches started reaching out. “It was a hectic first week,” Littlefield recalled.
But the recruiting process felt streamlined compared to when Littlefield was in high school because she knew what college basketball was like and what she was looking for this time around. “I called it ‘skipping the dating phase,’ where both sides are trying to figure the other out,” she said.
The pandemic created some new challenges, including that Littlefield couldn’t visit schools because of the NCAA’s recruiting dead period, but she relied on her family; the Princeton coaching staff; and her high school coaches, Chris and Sheri Guess, to help her choose a school. “I’d call them several times a day, just kind of picking their brain,” she said of the Guesses. “They’re like a second set of parents for me, and they know me as a player, too. So I really leaned on them.”
With her decision now in hand, Littlefield is thrilled about joining the ACC, a conference that she has watched more often this season without games of her own. She cited the conference’s history of elite point guards, including Syracuse’s Tiana Mangakahia and Louisville’s Dana Evans this season, as a particular draw. And she is looking forward to the North Carolina-NC State rivalry, especially if fans are allowed to attend en masse next season. “Playing in a packed crowd like that, a huge rivalry game, is going to be something really special,” Littlefield said. (Banghart already has two upsets of NC State in as many seasons, further fanning the flames between the programs.)
Littlefield added, “It doesn’t make it any easier that I have another year and that I have to leave Princeton. But I am still very excited that I have more games in college left. … I’m excited to be a Tar Heel, excited to get games going again, excited to not be a spectator.”
Littlefield joins several other Ivy League players who have transferred to Power 5 schools in recent years, including current Maryland standout and Harvard alumna Katie Benzan and Indiana Fever center Temi Fagbenle, who played collegiately at Harvard and USC. Littlefield is the third Ivy League player to commit to a Power 5 school for next season, joining Brown’s McKenna Dale (Virginia) and Harvard’s Jadyn Bush (California), and eight others are currently in the transfer portal.
However, Littlefield had several options to continue her career before deciding that becoming a graduate transfer was the best fit for her. Before her senior year began, with the season in limbo, she could have taken a year off from school and returned to Princeton in 2021-22. But with only one year left, she decided that that path didn’t make sense for her academically.
Another option was to graduate this year and enter the 2021 WNBA Draft, but Littlefield never considered closing the book on her college career. “You only get so many college basketball games,” she said. “I wanted to use up all of them [and] squeeze as much as I could out of the college experience.” She still plans to play professionally after college and believes that any of the schools she considered—as well as Princeton, if she could have finished her career there—would have prepared her well for the next level.
As Littlefield tries to lead the Tar Heels to new heights and get closer to her goal of playing professionally, she will also prepare for a post-playing career in business. Littlefield majored in economics at Princeton and will pursue her MBA at North Carolina. As a liberal arts school, Princeton doesn’t offer business degrees, so Littlefield hopes that her MBA program will expose her to more career paths in the field as well as prepare her for her dream job: working for the NBA.
Littlefield is back at Princeton for the spring semester after learning from home this fall, but her classes are still online. Like every Princeton senior, she is knee-deep in her thesis, which builds on a junior paper she wrote about WNBA salaries. Her thesis analyzes societal attitudes and economic opportunities for women in different countries and how those compare with the performance of female athletes from those countries in the Olympics.
“I have a theme of really examining strong female athletes and how to best support them,” Littlefield explained. “I’m very passionate about that.”
When she isn’t working on her thesis, Littlefield is able to do limited workouts at Princeton, following the school’s COVID-19 protocols. “It’s a lot of individual time,” she said—not unlike the regimen she had at home in Waukee, Iowa. She had access to a gym and a weight room there and used the time to improve several aspects of her game.
“I think the biggest [improvement] for me would be range on my 3-pointer and getting more comfortable at pulling up off the ball screen for three,” Littlefield said. “I think a lot of times I just kind of rely on using the ball screen to get downhill and set up for others. But I think developing that part of my game where I can pull up for three at any time, from anywhere, is another big step for me.”
Despite that growth on the court, the COVID-19 pandemic has tested Littlefield’s resolve in many ways, from the lack of games to online classes. In August, before the fall semester started, Littlefield went hiking and camping in Wyoming and Montana with teammates McKenna Haire and Lexi Weger, allowing her to reconnect with them while mitigating the risk of COVID-19.
“I had kind of been down in the dumps, just about everything—being home, COVID—not in the best frame of mind,” she said. “But being back with my teammates and getting out in nature, exploring and kind of taking that break from life was huge for me … That was one of the major things that helped me kind of reframe my mindset, get back to being positive and get ready for the upcoming school year.”
Months later, there are still no games for Littlefield, but a new destination is in sight—even if it’s not as close as Banghart would like. When Littlefield called Banghart to commit to North Carolina, Littlefield said Banghart jokingly asked her if she could graduate and enroll immediately.
“I was like, ‘No, I don’t think it works like that,’” Littlefield said.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.