December 2, 2021 

Tested and ‘Courtney-picked,’ UNC is undefeated and awesome on defense

Carlie Littlefield leads on the floor

Sometime this past summer, somewhere in West Virginia, Deja Kelly fell out of her raft and plunged into the water.

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North Carolina’s women’s basketball team was on an offseason team-bonding trip that involved camping and whitewater rafting, the latter of which most of the players had never done before. Many of them had never even been to the wild and wonderful state of West Virginia. And Kelly, a standout sophomore guard, can’t swim.

“We hit a few bumps in the water and I seem to be the only one that fell out,” Kelly recalled in the preseason. “I didn’t like that very much, but it happens… All my teammates were freaking out to save me. I probably sound very dramatic.”

Kelly can laugh about the incident now. Her teammates helped, and she safely got back in her boat and continued on the journey of whitewater rafting for the first time. The Heels had fun, came out unscathed and left the Mountain State knowing their teammates a little bit better.

“It wasn’t something that we’re all used to really doing. The majority of us did not know how to do it,” junior forward Malu Tshitenge said. “It was hard. It was scary. But it was fun… I felt like us being together and doing an activity that we wouldn’t choose to do ourselves, but really just being a family. I really felt like that’s the point.”

As it turned out, the whitewater rafting excursion would be the first of many times in the 2021-22 season that the Tar Heels would be tested in unfamiliar environments.

The North Carolina Tar Heels are 7-0 to start this season following a road victory over Minnesota in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. In sophomore Alyssa Ustby’s return to her home state, she tallied 19 points and 11 boards in the 82-76 triumph for UNC. Anya Poole chipped in a double-double too, with 12 points and a career-high 16 rebounds.

“When I knew that we had five of our first seven on the road, with three against Power 5 teams, I didn’t know where we’d be,” UNC head coach Courtney Banghart said. “I like where we are.”

It’s the 16th time in program history that the Heels are 7-0 – and the second time in three seasons that they’ve started that well under Banghart.

However, it’s the first time in program history that the Tar Heels are 7-0 with five victories away from Chapel Hill. UNC has three true road wins and two more at neutral sites.

Pulling the Tar Heels away from Chapel Hill and Carmichael Arena was by design. Banghart wanted this group to be challenged in foreign habitats – and be forced to build chemistry – early on. Playing scrubs at home wasn’t going to accomplish that.

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So the Tar Heels traveled to Charlotte and TCU. Over Thanksgiving break, they played against VCU – a 2021 tournament team – and Washington in a tiny gym in the Bahamas. And then the ACC and Big Ten paired the Tar Heels up with the Gophers of Minnesota in the annual challenge between the two tough leagues.

In all, that’s seven games featuring three Power Five teams, last year’s A-10 champ and the team picked to win CUSA – all on the road. And in their two games at home, the Tar Heels hosted Appalachian State and North Carolina A&T, the latter of which has been to the NCAA tournament twice in the past four seasons.

This slate, Banghart hoped, would prepare her unit for conference play, where the games matter a bit more.

“The ACC games are really challenging,” Banghart said at the ACC Tip-Off event in Charlotte in October. “And I don’t want that to be the first time our kids are going to be in a six-point game, or to be down two with a minute to play. I didn’t want that to be in a game that matters in – basically – getting into the NCAA tournament or not. So, I opted for preparing them for the gauntlet.

“There’s no better way to let the guys know, like, ‘Okay, this is college basketball.’ And then, here’s where we got to sharpen, here’s where we got to build to. And then that brings us to early December. And then we still have a full month before the ACC season gets into a full go. So we can kind of regroup a little bit and figure out where our holes are and where our strengths are.”

UNC’s Malu Tshitenge talks at the ACC Tip-Off event in Charlotte in October 2021. (Mitchell Northam / The Next)

One strength that has emerged for the Tar Heels so far is defense. Outside of VCU and Minnesota, UNC has held its other five opponents under 50 points.

In particular, Carolina is starting games extremely well defensively. Minnesota was the first team to score double-digits against the Tar Heels in the first quarter this season. Against App State at home, UNC held the Mountaineers to just seven points in all of the first half. The Tar Heels are outscoring opponents 265-131 in first halves this season.

According to Her Hoop Stats, the Tar Heels are seventh in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 48.9 points per-game. UNC is winning by an average margin of 31.1 points per game, which is third nationally. Her Hoop Stats gives the Tar Heels a defensive rating of 77.5, which is 15th-best in the country.

Furthermore, the Tar Heels are making things especially difficult on shooters. Opponents are making 30.5% of their attempts from the floor against UNC, a mark that is sixth-best in the country. UNC is also 23rd in 3-point defense (29.9%), ninth in effective field goal defense (35.1%) and fourth in points per play allowed (0.58).

Simply put, the Tar Heels’ defense is ridiculously awesome.

In early November, Banghart spoke to reporters after her team had a private scrimmage against No. 1 South Carolina in Columbia. Even then, how sharp the Tar Heels were on defense was something that stood out to her.

“Defensively, we’re tougher than we were a year ago and more accountable on that end,” Banghart said. “The pace of play, the rotations … There’s just a lot of growth. There’s been a lot of growth since June.”

This is Banghart’s third season in Chapel Hill, but it’s really the first time the roster has truly been molded by her vision. Most of the holdovers from the Sylvia Hatchell era are gone. There’s just one now, in Jaelynn Murray.

So, whether this team succeeds or fails, the credit or the blame will fall on Banghart. And so far, the Heels look pretty dang good.

“Everybody here is somebody I brought here. Or, in Jaelynn’s case, I made her stay … When I say they’re a team picked by me, they play and they show an adversity response, and they show trust and compassion that competitiveness requires,” Banghart said. “I just like the way this team is built. We don’t really have any bad players. Or any players that you look at and say, ‘That’s all they do.’ Again, it’s a Courtney-picked team.”

If you’re trying to boil down what a Courtney-picked team means, she summed it up in October in Charlotte: “We’re faster. We have two-way players at every spot.”

UNC returned just two players this season who played more than 19 minutes per game last year in sophomores Kelly and Ustby. They’ve been meshed with a trio of ESPN top-100 recruits, a pair of transfers, a veteran in Tshitenge and a few other standout sophomores in Kennedy Todd-Williams and Poole.

And helping lead the group – and showing the youngsters what it means to play on a Courtney-picked team – is Carlie Littlefield. A graduate transfer, the 5’9 point guard from Waukee, Iowa starred for Banghart at Princeton.

Princeton point guard Carlie Littlefield scans the floor on March 6, 2020, in what would end up being her second-to-last game in a Princeton uniform. Photo credit: Patrick Tewey

While UNC was in the thick of its pursuit of an NCAA tournament berth last January, Littlefield wasn’t playing because the Ivy League canceled the 2020-21 season. She entered the transfer portal and quickly accumulated offers from several of the nation’s top programs, including Stanford and Arizona – the two Pac-12 squads that matched up in the national championship game. But she ultimately chose to reunite with Banghart in Chapel Hill. Banghart pleaded with her: “Carlie, if I can’t get you, who can I get? I already coached you!”

“She always knew we’d team back up. I told her, the hardest day was when I said goodbye. The best day was when I said hello again,” Banghart said. “She’s loving it. She really loves this place and this program.”

Littlefield is third on the team in minutes played this season at 28.9 per game. She leads UNC in assists with 3.57 per game and is second in steals with 1.4 a night. According to Her Hoop Stats, Littlefield is 37th in the country in defensive win shares with 0.9. She’s a real two-way player and a legitimate leader – just what Banghart needed.

“She came in right away and fit right in. She’s just been really helpful for our team and she’s been a great leader for our team,” Kelly said of Littlefield. “Carlie – I will tell you – is truly a point guard.”

When star recruit Teonni Key suffered an ACL tear in that closed scrimmage against South Carolina, many folks around the country tamped down their expectations for the Tar Heels. Key was supposed to provide size, depth and talent in the front court and be a dynamic scoring option.

But the Tar Heels never seemed rattled by her injury. Players down the depth chart have stepped up.

And as long as the Tar Heels keep playing defense this well, they’ll be on their way to another NCAA tournament appearance. So far, from waterfalls in West Virginia to pint-sized venues in the Bahamas, no environment has shaken their focus yet.

“So far, this is the favorite team I’ve coached – top to bottom, side to side, it’s just a really good group of human beings,” Banghart said. “And that goes a long way in a long season.”

Written by Mitchell Northam

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